Asia-Pacific

Malaysian Christian lawyer barred from Shariah courts

Supreme Court, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Image caption Malaysia runs two parallel legal systems - civil and Shariah

A Christian lawyer in Malaysia has failed in her attempt to be allowed to practise in the Muslim Shariah courts.

Victoria Jayaseele Martin said she wanted to appear for non-Muslim clients fighting in such courts, to provide them with fairer representation.

An increasing number of cases heard in the Islamic courts involve both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Malaysia runs two parallel legal systems.

The civil courts cater to its non-Muslim citizens while the Islamic system decides issues affecting the fate of the country's Muslim majority.

A judge in Kuala Lumpur dismissed her challenge to the decision of a religious council that all lawyers in Islamic courts must be Muslim.

Ms Jayaseele Martin, who says the bar is unconstitutional, plans to appeal against the judge's decision.

Fairness

Ms Martin's lawyer, Ranjit Singh, said it was difficult for non-Muslims to find legal counsel, who may not want to defend cases that conflict with their own faith.

One of the lawyers for the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Council, Mr Abdul Rahim Sinwan, said it was "not a problem" for non-Muslims to find Muslim lawyers to defend them.

"It goes one step further because it's a question of faith. Because when the Muslim holds the opinion held by the judge, it's a question of faith, in which non-Muslims doesn't (have it)," he said.

The BBC's Jennifer Pak says he added that there was a "misunderstood perception that non-Muslim cannot find justice in the Shariah court", calling it a "fallacy."

There have been several cross-faith court cases, in which one partner to a marriage converts to Islam while the other does not, sparking custody battles.

Last year, the Malaysian government agreed to appoint women judges to its Islamic courts for the first time, something the Sisters in Islam (SIS) group said it had been demanding for many years.

The group has campaigned for reform of the Islamic legal system, saying it is not always administered and implemented properly and fairly.

The civil judiciary has long had female judges, covering a range of major cases.

The Islamic legal system focuses on family law, frequently tackling issues such as divorce, polygamy and custody battles.

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