On 31 July, a precedent was set by the High Court in a case which could impact on the lives of many Islamic couples seeking to divorce in the UK.
Prior to the ruling in NA v MSK*, Islamic women married outside of the UK had no legal protection under the laws of England and Wales unless the Islamic ceremony or “nikah” was legalised by a second civil ceremony in the UK.
In this landmark case, Mr and Mrs Akthar were married at a nikah ceremony in London almost 20 years ago. Both parties understood that they were embarking on a process which was intended to include a civil ceremony in which the marriage would be registered. The wife had understood (and husband had clearly indicated) that this would follow shortly after the nikah ceremony. However, despite her repeated requests, Mrs Akthar was unable to persuade her husband to formally complete the marriage process by arranging the civil ceremony.
Consequently, when Mrs Akthar applied for divorce in the UK, her husband sought to block it on the grounds that they were never legally married.
The judge, Mr Justice Williams, ruled against the husband, finding that their union should be recognised as a valid marriage, but one which was made void by virtue of it having been “entered into in disregard of certain requirements as to the formation of marriage”. The judge noted that the nature of the nikah ceremony bore all the hallmarks of a marriage in that it was held in public, witnessed, officiated by an Imam, involved the making of promises and confirmation that both the husband and wife were eligible to marry. It was also relevant that the couple had been treated as validly married in the UAE and had lived as a married couple for all purposes.
By virtue of her marriage being declared void, rather than an invalid “non-marriage”, Mrs Akhtar was granted a decree of nullity, with the key implication being that she is now entitled to bring proceedings for financial remedy under UK matrimonial law.
The decision will no doubt come as a relief to Mrs Akhtar and provides hope for many other spouses in faith marriages seeking to bring financial claims in the context of divorcing in the UK.
*NA v MSK  EWFC 54 (31 July 2018)