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'Law Reform Act amendments must be fair to spouse who converts to Islam'

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The Malaysian Syarie Lawyers Association (PGSM) wants the proposed amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (LRA) to be fair to the spouse who converts to Islam.

This is in regard to the amendments that would require interfaith disputes within civil marriages be resolved in civil courts.

"This is unfair to the spouse who converted to Islam, as he or she does not have locus standi to file for divorce under the existing section (51 of the LRA),” said the NGO in a statement.

"The proposed amendment must stress on this matter so that the spouse who converted to Islam is given the same fair rights to file for the dissolution of the civil marriage.”

PGSM pointed out that for civil marriages registered under the LRA, Section 51 of the Act states that if any spouse in a civil marriage converted to Islam, only the spouse who remains in the original religion can file to dissolve the marriage, three months after the conversion takes place.

"This means that the petition for divorce can only be filed by the spouse who did not convert to Islam. Until and unless that particular spouse files the petition, the civil marriage with the converted spouse is still in force under the act.

The amendments, said PGSM, must take into account the implications, especially the position of the constitution, laws and Islamic precepts.

The NGO argued that the powers granted to the syariah courts under item one of the second list of the ninth schedule of the Federal Constitution, in accordance with Section 46(2) of the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territory) Act 1984, should be maintained.

Section 46(2) of said Act empowers the syariah courts to decide on the status of civil marriages. The marriage cannot be considered dissolved just by the act of one of the spouse converting into Islam, unless and until affirmed by the syariah courts.

PGSM added that the declaration by the syariah courts is only to decide on the status of the mariage according to Islamic law.

"Denying the right of the convert to file a petition in the syariah courts under Section 46(2) of the Act is tantamount to denying their right as accorded in the Federal Constitution.

'Must address unilateral conversions'

Meanwhile, Wanita MCA chief Heng Seai Kie welcomed the amendments to the LRA, though she hoped that it would be extended to remedy the unilateral conversion issue.

Heng added the proposed amendments to the LRA is in line with MCA’s position that any marriages solemnised by civil law, may only be dissolved through civil law.

However, she said that laws against unilateral conversion must be cast in stone as there are still loopholes that irresponsible parties can use.

"Although the Bill informs on solving the disputes between the husband and wife in a divorce including custody of children, Wanita MCA observes that news reports do not mention if the Bill will touch on unilateral conversion of minor children by a converting spouse," she said.

Heng argued that without any parliamentary legislation enacted regarding unilateral conversion, a spouse who converts to Islam may still exploit this lacuna.

She said the converted spouse could get the minor children converted at the state’s religious department without the estranged spouse’s knowledge, much less consent.

"Hence, Wanita MCA hopes the amended LRA will resolve this issue," she said.

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