Concern for women’s rights as first ‘Sikh court’ established

6 June, 2024

A new Sikh ‘court’ has been launched in the UK, despite warnings from women’s rights campaigners. The centre, which is the first of its kind, will be staffed by Sikh lawyers and barristers. It will function under legislation known as alternative dispute resolution or ADR, which allows non-judicial bodies to arbitrate between parties. ADR decisions are binding, final, and are upheld by UK courts.

Its defenders will argue that religious-owned arbitration and mediation centres are just like any others, resolving disputes using rules both parties have agreed to. But concerns about so-called religious ‘courts’, on basic equality and human rights grounds, are clear. Many people in many religions, Sikhism included, have deeply socially conservative views on issues like the status of women and evidence from other religious courts demonstrates a consistent reticence towards reporting abuse to the police. Shame and honour are themes that prevent many people in Sikh communities from reporting abuse. Religious courts and institutions are more likely to favour fathers over mothers and husbands over wives, in disputes about custody or domestic violence.

The normalisation of so-called religious ‘courts’ can also have a profound impact on victims of domestic abuse, especially for vulnerable adults and those who do not speak English as a first language. Pragna Patel has written in the Guardian that she has known many women who use community mediation systems ‘not out of choice but fear of stigma, isolation and even violent repercussions’. Some may not understand that arbitration centres are only to be voluntarily entered into, and do not represent the civil or criminal law of the land. Justice more often requires the law to be impartial – to stand aside from religious rules and diktats.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said:

‘We oppose any attempt to incorporate non-statutory religious ‘courts’ into UK law. We want regulation to require such bodies to make it clear that they have no legal standing.’

Faith to Faithless is a programme at Humanists UK dedicated to providing specialist support to those who have left high-control religions – often called apostates. It provides a helpline, peer support from trained volunteers, social activity, and awareness training to public services, including NHS divisions and police forces.

Faith to Faithless’ Apostate Services Manager Donna Craine said:

‘Many of our service users have been coerced into signing alternative dispute resolution agreements at religious councils. The decisions made are often pejorative towards women, or to whichever party is less religious. Even if people then find their way to family courts they face ongoing difficulty because of the weight UK courts give to the binding decisions made by religious councils.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 0203 675 0959.

Read more about our position on religious ‘courts’.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.