The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales (Home Office, 2018) focussed on the implementation of ‘Sharia law’ by Sharia Councils. It proposed reforms to tackle the use of Sharia Councils, including legislative changes aimed at reducing the incidence of religious-only non-civilly registered marriages. The review has faced criticism on a number of issues. The key argument of this chapter is that any legal reform to address the negative outcomes of religious-only marriages should not be targeted solely at these relationships, but should rather encompass all cohabiting couples, who currently have very limited protection under the family law regime. The central premise of this argument is that the lack of rights for all cohabiting couples has been a long-standing failing of family law in England and Wales (Barlow et al, 2005). Religious-only marriages may be conceptually different from cohabitation, but the legal consequences remain the same. Therefore, the negative outcomes of both relationship types are very similar for the most vulnerable party – almost invariably the woman – making differing legal treatment unwarranted.
The Independent review was additionally concerned with potential discrimination against Muslim women using Sharia Councils (Home Office, 2018: 3), of which many are in non-legally recognized marriages. However, as research demonstrates that women in all informal relationships bear great risk, including far larger numbers of cohabitees, law reform must cohesively respond to the needs of all such women rather than singling out any particular group. This chapter therefore argues that any law reform must be more generic and cover all families within informal cohabiting relationships. While Muslim couples may not view themselves as cohabitants, the law will treat them as such and in England and Wales, this means very limited family law protections are available (Miles, this volume). While religious-only Muslim weddings in many cases may be celebrated with pomp and ceremony, the lack of legal recognition means these become ‘marriages in another form’ and not ‘cohabitation by another name’. However, these underlying differences should not dictate law reform proposals, and the focus should instead be on the negative legal outcomes experienced by those within all such legally unrecognized relationships.