Thu 24 June 2021

Stephen Colegrave looks at the case of Afsana Lachaux who is facing the threat of bankruptcy because a British judge upheld Dubai law

What is it about British exceptionalism? The ideology that tricked us into leaving the European Union also appears to be infecting other parts of our national life – often with quite shameful results. In this age of Brexit, we just have to be different. And the worst impact often falls on women.  

Take the case of Afsana Lachaux, a British mother who lost custody of her son when her French husband divorced her under Dubai’s sharia laws in 2012.  

The French Supreme Court was asked to rule on the matter, and it upheld the universal values with which we like to assume our country is proudly associated. It dismissed the Dubai divorce as sexist and ‘manifestly discriminatory’ for failing to uphold the basic principle of equality between man and woman. Surely a British court would do the same? Afsana Lachaux had, after all, been married in England. 

Sadly not.

A Limping Marriage

Sitting in the High Court in London, Justice Mostyn was far more interested in issues of sovereignty, the holy grail of the Brexiters. He supported the freedom of a ‘friendly nation’ to set its own rules.  

He even said Dubai’s divorce laws, which have been condemned by the UN for treating women as second-class citizens, were broadly similar to our own.  

So, where in British law does it say that a woman should be divorced – and lose custody of her child – because she didn’t ‘obey her husband’, or fulfil her marital duties, or because she had gay friends? 

It sounds like a sick joke. But all of these were given as reasons in the Dubai divorce ruling. And yet Justice Mostyn apparently decided that it was Dubai’s sovereign right to treat a British woman in this way.  

The judge even argued it wasn’t a sharia divorce because it took place in Dubai’s personal status family court. Yet that court, and the rest of Dubai’s legal system, has sharia as its underlying principle. The French Supreme Court could see through the charade. But it wasn’t enough to convince a judge in Brexit Britain.  

It leaves Afsana Lachaux in the invidious position of being divorced in Britain under UAE sharia law and being married in France – known in legal terms as a ‘limping marriage’. It may also be the shape of things to come as we move away from other European norms to chart our own path.   

It Gets Worse

It is extremely rare in a case involving children for costs to be awarded to the other side. Cases in British family courts are supposed to be all about the best interests of the child. But – without giving any reasons in his judgment – Justice Mostyn ordered Afsana Lachaux to pay her ex-husband’s legal bills in full.  

(The charity The Transparency Project have an explanation for this in their blog ‘The Things Left Unsaid’ which also looks at other judgments in the case and comes to different conclusions).

Her own lawyers had worked on her case pro bono for years, convinced she was the victim of injustice. But she is now facing a demand for nearly £100,000 from her ex-husband, and the threat of bankruptcy if she doesn’t pay the money.  

All this has been imposed on a British woman who now only sees her son for six hours a year in the cold impersonal surroundings of a contact centre in London.  

We should be better than this, and we should expect our judicial system to be better than this. It is an ugly outcome and a warning to other women who may find themselves in a similar position. Afsana Lachaux is now fighting to save her home after being penalised for fighting to see her own child.  

If Global Britain is to mean anything at all, it should mean that we fight for justice and fairness at home and abroad and that we refuse to kowtow to legal and political systems that don’t share our values. That hasn’t happened in this case.  

Afsana Lachaux won the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize last year for her role in campaigning for equal treatment for women in the justice system.  She persuaded the Foreign Office to change their travel advice to warn women of the legal perils they could face in the United Arab Emirates and now she is fighting this judgement.

This article was amended on 14/10/2020 to include a link to the Transparency Project’s article on the case which contains more legal details and contends this comment piece lacks some key background facts. For more, read here.

Afsana Lachaux has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay the costs of this judgement 

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