SECRET talks are under way to bring Islamic sharia law courts to Scotland, The Scotsman has learned.
Qamar Bhatti, director of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT), which runs the courts, admitted discussions were taking place with lawyers and Muslim community groups in Scotland.
The group is believed to be aiming to set up courts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In September it emerged that five sharia courts, ruling on civil cases from divorce to domestic violence and financial disputes, had been operating for more than a year in London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester and at MAT headquarters in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
The courts have legal powers, with their decisions enforceable through the county courts or high courts.
However, concerns have been raised about the establishment of a "dual legal system".
Women's domestic violence groups have also voiced fears, saying traditional sharia law arbitration is "dangerous and inappropriate" in cases of abuse.
Last night Bill Aitken, the Scottish Tory justice spokesman, said: "Informal private arrangements between individual members of the Muslim community are one thing, but in criminal matters Scottish courts must have total jurisdiction. "Matters of divorce and domestic violence require to be determined by conventional courts. We cannot have private arrangements when human rights are an issue."
The move to establish sharia courts has sharply divided opinion among Scotland's Muslims.
Some defend the right of the Muslim community to rule on its own affairs. But others say MAT has not consulted them and there is no demand for sharia courts.
Aamer Anwar, a Glasgow-based civil rights lawyer, said: "Those using sharia law are fully entitled to religious freedom as long as it doesn't conflict with criminal law. Because it happens to be Islamic , people jump to the conclusion it is barbaric.
"It is down to the community to decide for itself."
Commenting on criticisms over domestic violence, he said: "The woman has full entitlement to go before any court or to the police. With sharia law, when domestic violence is raised it always runs into a fanfare of hysteria."
Noman Tahir, of the Scottish-Islamic Foundation, said there was no groundswell of support for sharia courts in Scotland.
"Currently, Scottish Muslims resolve civil matters through the courts or voluntary third-party arbitration with Islamic scholars and imams," he said. "This has worked well for many years and we are not aware of any unhappiness with these arrangements or calls for change."
A spokeswoman for Shakti Women's Aid, which supports black minority ethnic women, said it was not in favour of the courts in Scotland.
"Cases of domestic abuse and divorce should be heard within the Scottish judicial system," she said. "We fear that many female victims of domestic abuse may be pressurised by their families and partners to accept the rulings of the sharia court as final and prevent them from seeking legal assistance from the Scottish court system, which might force them to continue living within abusive relationships."
John Scott, a human rights lawyer, said: "There is a place for sharia law, but we need to be careful those aspects unfavourable to women are not allowed to dominate.
"I have less concern about fears over a dual legal system than aspects which are inconsistent in practice with equality issues. But such courts cannot be set up unsupervised and they would need to be monitored."
In February the Archbishop of Canterbury caused a furore when he commented that it "seems unavoidable" that parts of Islamic sharia law would be adopted in the UK if social cohesion was to be maintained.
Panels of scholars with power to settle disputes
What is sharia?
Sharia law is Islam's legal system, derived from the Koran and from fatwas – the rulings of Islamic scholars. It covers every aspect of a Muslim's life and day-to-day conduct.
What do sharia courts deal with?
A range of issues including marriage, divorce, family and financial disputes.
Where and when do they meet?
They have been set up in mosques, Islamic centres and converted premises such as shops. Most meet weekly. Advice on some issues can also be obtained online.
How are decisions made?
Around three to six scholars and imams collectively make decisions.
Islamic jurists issue guidance and rulings. Guidance which is considered a formal legal ruling is called a fatwa.
How much does it cost a complainant?
Costs range from 150-250
Is there a right of appeal?
Yes – you can appeal to another sharia court or apply for a special hearing.
Why do some women have concerns about these courts?
Some Muslim women say they are concerned about the interpretation of disputes because of the patriarchal nature of their culture.
Have sharia courts been established in other western countries?
Attempts to set up sharia courts in Canada in 2005 were abandoned after protests.