Sacred Settlements / Ententes sacrées
The recent controversy over Sharia law in Ontario has turned the spotlight on the growing number of Canadians who turn to their religions to help them solve law-related crises. Quietly, faith-based alternative dispute resolution has become one of the fastest-growing choices for settling conflicts in Canada.
By Sheldon Gordon
In December, former Ontario Attorney General Marion Boyd released a 150-page report that provoked intense reactions from across Canada. She had been asked by the provincial government to review the 1991 Arbitration Act and determine whether the province should call a halt to the growing practice among Ontario’s 400,000 Muslims of using Islamic law in the settlement of disputes, including family law conflicts.
Boyd concluded that the government should not prohibit such practices. In fact, she recommended legislative amendments and regulations to ensure that such practices accord with established laws and that adequate safeguards exist to protect vulnerable parties.
The report reignited a lengthy debate about the role of Islamic legal principles in Canadian law. Advocates of faith-based ADR had invoked freedom of religion guarantees of the Charter of Rights to support such practices, while opponents warned that courts operating according to the precepts of Islamic law (Sharia) would discriminate against women and enforce unfair results in family disputes.
The debate, although centred in the Muslim community, awakened Canadians to their multicultural society’s use of faith-based dispute resolution. Indeed, the tradition goes back well before the secular court system, to healing circles and other spirituality-influenced conflict resolutions among First Nations. But in today’s Canadian mosaic, faith-based ADR carries a particular resonance — and urgency.
Advocates of faith-based ADR view it as a religious injunction: Devout Jews, Christians and Muslims are encouraged by their sacred texts to settle intra-faith disputes without using secular courts. Proponents also advertise it as a way to dispense with expensive litigation, and maybe even with lawyers.
While a national consensus about faith-based ADR is probably not imminent, Canadians no longer have the option of simply pretending that faith-based conflict resolution isn’t an issue. It’s real — and it’s rising fast.
The impetus in favour of Islam-based ADR in Ontario began with a small group of Muslim lawyers who form the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice. The Institute wishes to convene Muslim Arbitration Boards (Darul-Qada) to hear civil law and family law disputes.
"A case may come to Darul-Qada in two ways," says the Institute’s Website. "The parties may choose to go to Darul-Qada directly without ever going to the court, or alternatively, by consent of the parties, the matter may come to Darul-Qada after the court orders that it go to ADR. Once the matter comes to Darul-Qada, the parties will be free to choose the law that they wish to rely upon."
Faisal Kutty, a partner with Baksh & Kutty in Toronto, considers the Institute’s views too rigid and conservative, but still supports the idea of Islamic ADR. He says informal conciliation already takes place at mosques throughout the Greater Toronto Area, "but people are abiding by decisions that are often times crude or unfair. Formalizing the process will allow for greater transparency and accountability."
On the other hand, Jasminka Kalajdzic, whose practice includes civil litigation and human rights law at Sutts, Strosberg in Windsor, Ontario, has supported the Canadian Council of Muslim Women in opposing Sharia-based arbitration. She concedes that informal arbitrations already occur, but she fears that formalizing the process will make it even more prevalent in the Muslim community.
Kalajdzic reacts skeptically to the argument that it would be better to regulate and standardize the process. "It sounds like a great proposition: ‘Let’s bring the back-alley arbitration into a regulated setting,’" she says. "But no one has answered to my satisfaction what body of Sharia law would be applied."
Sharia is subject to widely different interpretations, says Kalajdzic, an observant Muslim of Bosnian origin. "People’s cultural background affects how they interpret the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet. Older generations may have stricter interpretations than those of my generation. Who is ultimately responsible for determining what is Sharia law?"
Kutty, who specializes in corporate/commercial and charities law, believes it will be up to the two parties in a conflict to agree on which version of Sharia will be used. He sees the inclusion of Darul-Qada under the Arbitration Act as an opportunity for Muslims to "shed the cultural baggage" and develop an Islamic jurisprudence that blends Quranic concepts with North American elements.
The Arbitration Act sets no standards for faith-based arbitrators, and as a result, "anyone with a long beard and a knowledge of Arabic could make rulings," says Kutty. He wants the "Muslim community" to set standards and require certification of Sharia-based arbitrators. (For its part, the Council on American Islamic Relations Canada (CAIR-CAN) says the Attorney General should perform that function, and encourages the use of lawyers as Sharia arbitrators.)
Family law concerns
Kutty, while acknowledging the concerns of Muslim women, expects relatively few marital disputes will be brought to Islamic arbitration. "If it reaches the point that the couple is fighting bitterly, they’re more likely to go to family court," he maintains. Kutty thinks issues like custody will be determined according to "the best interests of the child" test, and notes that secular courts can always overturn arbitration awards.
Kalajdzic, however, doubts that family courts will exercise substantial oversight of Sharia court decisions. "The family court will have the record of the decision, but will there be a substantive and detailed review of the decision — whether, for example, it complies with the Family Law Act?" she asks. "The whole purpose is to make the process less formal and to derogate, in some circumstances, from the letter of the law, for example on support and custody issues."
While Kutty foresees relatively few couples choosing Sharia courts, Kalajdzic says the reality is that vulnerable immigrant women will be pressured, by their husbands and communities, into submitting to a "voluntary" arbitration. "I don’t have as many concerns about the tribunal dealing with civil and commercial disputes as I have with the family law context," she says.
Kalajdzic does welcome proposals made by B’nai B’rith Canada and CAIR-CAN that parties to a religious-based family arbitration be required to obtain independent legal advice. B’nai B’rith goes a step further and urges that the parties be eligible for legal aid to pay for that advice.
"It’s an important safeguard, but I’m still not sure it’s sufficient to meet all the concerns that have been raised," says Kalajdzic. "Without knowing which version of Sharia will apply, I can't say whether there is any possible set of safeguards that would satisfy me."
For all her qualms, Kalajdzic does admit to some ambivalence on the issue. "I’m sensitive to the argument that if other religious communities are allowed to arbitrate their disputes, why shouldn’t the Muslim community? As a lawyer, I can see why the tribunal proponents are concerned that the position of their opponents may have a discriminatory effect."
Developments in Ontario are already reverberating elsewhere in Canada. Salam Elmenyawi, an imam who heads the Muslim Council of Montreal, says his group has been holding quiet talks with the Quebec Department of Justice. The group wants the Charest government to change provincial law to recognize binding Sharia arbitration, as in Ontario.
Muslim advocates of Sharia have frequently invoked the Jewish community’s use of the Beit Din, or rabbinical court, as proof that faith-based ADR can work well within the Canadian constitutional order.
A Beit Din (house of law) resolves civil and commercial disputes, but also grants Gets (Jewish divorce decrees) and oversees the final steps of conversion to Judaism. Mandated by the Torah, these courts commonly hold hearings before three dayanim (judges who are rabbis) — the complainant and defendant each choose one judge, and the two judges pick the third. The Beit Din may issue summonses and call witnesses.
"Quite often, issues are mediated, but property issues have to be arbitrated," says John Syrtash, a family law practitioner at Beard Winter in Toronto who often advises parties at rabbinical court. In matrimonial disputes, he says, the Beit Din first tries to persuade the couple to reconcile.
Jewish courts allow lawyers to participate as advisers. Syrtash advises his clients not on halacha (Jewish law), but on how Ontario law will affect the Beit Din’s rulings. "Many of the family-law principles are very similar, including equal distribution of assets in a divorce and custody based on the best interests of the child," he notes. "Lawyers are very useful to help the court organize the facts and understand how the secular law might approach the facts."
The credibility of the rabbinical courts in the secular legal community was reinforced in 1999, when the Ontario Superior Court granted a stay of proceedings in a civil action brought by Montreal-based Levitts Kosher Foods Inc. against three Toronto rabbis who had blocked the use of their food in rabbinically supervised kosher restaurants.
The presiding judge referred the lawsuit to a Beit Din for resolution, ruling that "it would be inappropriate for the court in this case to interfere with the authority of the rabbis."
While effective in settling commercial disputes, the Beit Din has been faulted for its role in family disputes. According to Jewish law, only men can initiate a divorce, giving their wives a Get. But husbands have often withheld a Get in order to extort better terms on alimony, child support or custody.
This left numerous Jewish women in a marital limbo, unable to remarry under Jewish law. These agunot ("chained women") have criticized the rabbinical courts for not exercising moral suasion on their recalcitrant husbands.
"Every country in the world where there are Jews, there are also agunot," says Tirzah Meacham, Professor of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. She was a member of the Canadian Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a group that successfully lobbied for amendments to the Ontario Family Law Act and the federal Divorce Act in the late 1980s to aid the agunot.
The federal amendments prohibit anyone from maintaining barriers to the religious remarriage of their spouse. It effectively withholds a civil divorce until a religious divorce has first been granted.
"The number of problems that we’ve had since the legislation came into force has dropped by 90%," says Syrtash. "In rare cases, where someone claims to have been coerced, the rabbis will bring pressure." Moreover, he says the mindset in the community has changed.
However, Meacham doubts that the legislative change has solved the problem. "As long as the civil divorce is not yet granted, she has the power of the legislation behind her. But after the legislation came in, women who had obtained a civil divorce but had not received their Get fell through the cracks."
Furthermore, she notes, the law only provides leverage on a recalcitrant husband if he is eager to obtain a civil divorce, usually because he wants to marry someone else. "If a man doesn’t want a civil divorce, it doesn’t hurry things along at all," she says.
Meacham, an Orthodox Jewish feminist, notes that to the extent women are treated better under Jewish law, it’s thanks to the civil law rather than any reform of the Beit Din. "There is nothing good about Jewish marriage and divorce law," she says.
"It’s a broken system; any system based on the unilateral ’acquisition’ of another human being can’t work," she says. "The divorce problems are the result of the marriage. If the woman is unilaterally ’acquired’ by the man, then only he can release her. "
Even within the existing Beit Din framework, the disadvantage faced by women could be eased by the appointment of Rabbinical Court Advocates, says Meacham. She notes that in Israel, such advisers, specially trained in Jewish law, now can represent women appearing before the court.
"It has been a relatively successful program," she says. "A number of women have gone through it to become advisers, but they are still treated by the rabbis on the Beit Din as not really belonging. There is a built-in bias in favour of men in the religious court system."
For his part, Syrtash insists that Ontario’s civil courts will refuse to enforce any religious court decisions that were decided unfairly or treated the parties unequally. He cites the Ontario Superior Court’s 1996 ruling in T. v. T., which found that a Rabbinical Court had unduly delayed a matrimonial case involving child support and access issues, to the detriment of the family involved. The civil court took over the case from the rabbis.
While an isolated example, Syrtash says it’s the exception that proves the rule: the courts will exercise their parens patriae supervisory duty to "override any unprincipled position taken by an arbitration panel."
Christian ADR is relatively new in Canada and is not yet as common as Jewish or Muslim ADR. Most arbitrations based on the Christian Bible occur within the Church to resolve conflicts at the board level, between a congregation and its staff, or between congregations. Christian ministers and priests often are asked to do informal conciliations involving members of their church.
While lay Christians don’t have recourse to anything as formalized as faith-based courts, they do sometimes turn to lawyers for ADR based on Scripture. Francis Taman, who practises commercial law and wills and estates
at Bishop & McKenzie in Calgary, gained mediation experience serving on the Lutheran Church’s Commission for Adjudication, and later became interested in helping lay Christians as a lawyer-mediator.
Currently, Taman is studying for certification by the U.S.-based Peacemaker Ministries, which trains mediators in Christian Conciliation — "a process for reconciling people and resolving disputes out of court in a Biblical manner," he explains.
The Christian conciliation process is based largely on Matthew 18: 15-16, in which Jesus says: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses."
The objective isn’t simply to resolve the dispute, but to do so in such a way that the relationship, whatever it may be, is not only preserved but also improved. Through his Church activity, Taman has acquired many clients who are devout Christians. "Often, when conflicts and litigation arise, they are dissatisfied with the way things are going," he says.
"The issue of ’How does this relate to what God wants in my life?’ comes up. To be able to provide them with a framework that is effective and is in line with their personal religious beliefs is quite attractive for me as a lawyer."
Taman has been involved in only one Christian conciliation process to date — an employment dispute where both parties were devout Christians. He acted as the legal advisor for the employer; a mutually acceptable pastor acted as conciliator. "I don’t think there’s ever a perfect resolution, but the amazing thing is that the two parties were able to reconcile," he recalls.
He notes, however, that even though the intent is to resolve the dispute in accordance with Scripture, earthly considerations are very much a part of the process. "You still have to deal with the material issues," he points out. "When we dealt with the employment dispute, front and centre was the question of, ’What have the civil courts said is a just notice period?’ That’s not binding on the parties as Christians, but it provides a context."
The process begins with a Devotion (a short reading from the Bible) and a prayer. As with secular mediations, the mediator may caucus separately with each party. The difference, says Taman, is that "often, the reconciler would be meeting with people not to get them to give way, but to examine their own motives, examine their life for particular wrongs they may have done to the other person, and urge confession and reconciliation."
Strictly speaking, such an approach can be prejudicial to the legal rights of the individual, he admits. "You’re going to be urged by someone to confess something that no sane lawyer would ever ask you to confess," he says. "I would say to the client, as to any client: ’You can do this, but here’s the downside to doing it.’"
For a lawyer, "once you enter into this process, you end up in a tough position," Taman observes. "As a Christian, I believe that a person should confess when they do things wrong and should reconcile. As a lawyer, I’m always very conscious that any time you do that, you’re making an admission. Even though these processes are without prejudice and a confidentiality agreement is signed, you’ve put something on the table. It’s a tension."
John Ferris, a sole practitioner with clients in the Ontario towns of Flesherton, Dundalk and Creemore, is also working toward certification from the Peacemaker Ministries. He has performed six faith-based mediations in the past two years for couples referred by ministers or Christian counsellors. (Although Ferris is a Congregationalist, most of his biblically based ADR has been performed for couples of other Christian denominations.)
In one case, he achieved a marital reconciliation; in the others, he was able to help the couples settle without going to court. Once the parties reach a settlement, Ferris puts it in writing and has both sides sign it. It can then be incorporated into a separation agreement prepared by their lawyers.
Ferris routinely encourages both parties to retain legal counsel. While he is prepared to mediate even if one or both parties do not retain counsel, he says that "if the party who is unrepresented is entering into an unfair agreement, I would either insist they get legal advice or would terminate the mediation."
While very few members of the Bar perform Christian-based mediation in a formal sense, a number of devoutly Christian lawyers find that they are approached for their mediation services precisely because their faith infuses the entire process.
"You’re looking more at fairness and at what’s right than the strict letter of the law," says Valerie Hazlett Parker of McGibbon, Bastedo, Armstrong in Oshawa, Ontario, whose mediations are mainly family-related.
"It’s about what’s right for these people, based on where they’re coming from — which may or may not be what a court would do. Going through an ADR process is itself more biblical than trotting off to court. Devout Christians are more likely to adhere to the process, because it is more Scriptural."
Hazlett Parker, like the other lawyers who support faith-based ADR, expects the demand for religious-oriented conciliation to only increase. "I think it’s going to happen," she says. "Faith-based groups, not just Christian groups, are getting more and more disenchanted with the justice system."
Sheldon Gordon is a Toronto-based writer specializing in legal affairs.
Copyright © 2006 The Canadian Bar Association