Unilateral conversion: Enact law, don’t rely on judgments, says lawyer

Kindergarten teacher M Indira Gandhi won her battle to set aside the conversion certificates of her three children, but a lawyer says other court benches may depart from this ruling. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: A lawyer has urged the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to amend the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act (LRA) to stop the unilateral conversion of children when non-Muslims spouses convert to Islam.

Ravi Nekoo said changes in law by the legislature would give the people more certainty than relying on judicial pronouncements.

“The PH government should introduce amendments to the LRA to stop such conversions of children because that is not fair to the non-converting spouse,” he told FMT.

Ravi, a family law practitioner, was responding to former de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said who challenged Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo and Human Resources Minister M Kulasegaran to table an amendment on unilateral conversions.

The LRA is only applicable to non-Muslims in the registration of marriage, divorce proceedings, maintenance, child custody and the distribution of property during marriage.

The Pengerang MP, who is now in the opposition, said Gobind and Kulasegaran were among many MPs who used to question the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration for not tabling the amendment.

“Now that you are in power, why don’t you table this amendment? Do it if you have the time,” she said when debating the royal address last week.

On Jan 29, a five-member Federal Court bench allowed the appeal of kindergarten teacher M Indira Gandhi to set aside the conversion certificates of her three children.

It ruled that spouses who have embraced Islam cannot convert their minor children without the consent of the non-converting partner in the civil marriage.

It also ruled that the word “parent” in Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution should be read as “parents”. The article in question states that the religion of a person under the age of 18 shall be decided by the parent or guardian.

However, Ravi said there was nothing to stop another Federal Court bench from departing from the ruling, at which point the matter would be “back to the drawing board”.

The original bill in the LRA with clause 88A was withdrawn on Aug 7 last year by Azalina as there were previously four court rulings allowing a parent to convert minor children with the permission of the spouse.

Section 88A, if passed by Parliament last year, would have prevented a parent who embraced Islam from converting the children unless both parents agree.

This changed following the landmark ruling in Indira’s case, delivered by justice Zainun Ali.

Meanwhile, lawyer Balwant Singh Sidhu said Azalina must explain why amendments to the LRA were approved with the exception of Section 88A.

“She has to explain who objected to the inclusion of Clause 88A in the LRA,” he said.

He added that the PH government had just taken over and should be given time to reintroduce changes to the legislation.

Even amendments approved by the legislature had received royal assent but were not yet gazetted to take effect, he said.

He said the BN government could have included Section 88A in the LRA when the Dewan Rakyat sat in April following the Indira judgment, but lacked the political will to do so.

“There will be no certainty in the legal principles established in Indira’s case unless Parliament make changes to the law in accordance with the court decision.”

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