Islamic sharia law courts in Britain are exploiting a little-known legal clause to make their verdicts officially binding under UK law in cases including divorce, financial disputes and even domestic violence.
A new network of courts in five major cities is hearing cases where Muslims involved agree to be bound by traditional sharia law, and under the 1996 Arbitration Act the court's decisions can then be enforced by the county courts or the High Court.
Officials behind the new system claim to have dealt with more than 100 cases since last summer, including six involving domestic violence which is a criminal rather than civil offence, and said they hoped to take over growing numbers of 'smaller' criminal cases in future.
The revelations sparked uproar yesterday, with warnings that the fundamental principle of equal treatment for all - the bedrock of British justice - was being gravely undermined.
Critics fear Britain's Islamic hard-liners will now try to make sharia law the dominant legal system in Muslim neighbourhoods, and warn that women often receive less favourable treatment at the hands of the traditional Islamic courts.
The issue erupted into a major controversy earlier this year after the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams claimed publicly that formal recognition of sharia law 'seemed unavoidable', and Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips gave his backing to the use of Islamic courts to deal with family, marital and financial disputes.