At least 85 Islamic sharia courts are operating in Britain, a study claimed yesterday.
The astonishing figure is 17 times higher than previously accepted.
The tribunals, working mainly from mosques, settle financial and family disputes according to religious principles. They lay down judgments which can be given full legal status if approved in national law courts.
Under sharia, a male child belongs to the father after the age of seven, regardless of circumstances.'
It said: 'Sharia courts operating in Britain may be handing down rulings that are inappropriate to this country because they are linked to elements in Islamic law that are seriously out of step with trends in Western legislation.'
The study pointed out that the House of Lords ruled in a child custody case last year that the sharia rules on the matter were 'arbitrary and discriminatory'.
And a 2003 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg said it was 'difficult to declare one's respect for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverges from Convention values.'
However last year Justice Minister Bridget Prentice told MPs that 'if, in a family dispute ...the parties to a judgment in a sharia council wish to have this recognised by English authorities, they are at liberty to draft a consent order embodying the terms of the agreement and submit it to an English court.
'This allows judges to scrutinise it to ensure it complies with English legal tenets.'
Decisions from sharia tribunals can be presented to a family court judge for approval with no more detail than is necessary to complete a two page
form. The sharia courts in the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal are recognised as courts under the Arbitration Act. This law, which covers Jewish Beth Din courts, gives legal powers to a tribunal if all parties involved accept its authority.