Shas, UTJ bills challenge High Court

Bills would grant religious courts right to impose legal rulings based halacha.

high court 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
high court 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will be forced next week to define the government's position on demands by the haredi parties to expand the authority of the rabbinical courts to hand down judicial rulings on matters outside marriage and divorce. On Monday, the Ministerial Law Committee will discuss two private member bills presented by Shas and United Torah Judaism designed to bypass High Court of Justice decisions that have curtailed the powers of the rabbinical courts over the past decade. The latest controversial decision was handed down in April, when the High Court ruled that the religious courts, which have acted as arbitrators in financial disputes since the establishment of the state, were prohibited from doing so. Until now, the courts acted as arbitrators in civil disputes, mainly involving financial disagreements, including those having nothing to do with divorce, as long as both parties agreed. In the April ruling, Justice Ayala Procaccia wrote that rabbinical courts may not act as arbitrators, just as civil courts may not. The decision angered the religious parties. Shas MKs David Azoulai and Ya'acov Margi, and UTJ MKs Moshe Gafni and Ya'acov Litzman, quickly submitted private member bills that would not only grant the religious courts the right to arbitrate financial disputes in non-divorce cases, but also to impose legal rulings, as opposed to arbitration, based on halachic law. The bills would also allow the religious courts to hear all future litigation that is a function of a ruling that they originally handed down. For example, if a rabbinical court ruled on a divorce settlement that included an agreements on alimony payments, child custody and division of property, the proposed legislation would empower it to hear all future cases emanating from the agreement, for example one party suing the other for failing to live up to its terms. Both private member bills would override High Court rulings issued starting in the early 1990s. According to these rulings, rabbinical courts must apply only civil law in dealing with the financial and property issues of a divorce. They are not allowed to hear civil cases emanating from the original divorce agreement, and they are not allowed to arbitrate, let alone issue judicial rulings, on financial matters unrelated to divorce procedures. During the negotiations on the establishment of the current government, Shas and Kadima agreed that the Justice Ministry would draft and the coalition would pass legislation revoking some of the restrictions imposed on the rabbinical courts by the High Court over the years. However, the draft of a Justice Ministry bill that was prepared during the spring and early summer did not satisfy all of Shas's demands. As a result, the cabinet did not approve the bill and decided to continue work on it. Soon afterward, representatives of the Justice Ministry met with members of the rabbinical court administration to discuss the impasse. After the meeting, the Committee of Dayanim, a representative body of all the religious court judges, prepared a bill aimed at bridging the gap between the Justice Ministry and Shas. That bill was never discussed by the cabinet. The Justice Ministry's department of consultation and legislation prepared an opinion for the minister on the new draft. But before he could read it, Justice Minister Haim Ramon resigned, and his temporary replacement, Meir Sheetrit, did not have time to look into the matter. Now, Foreign Minister Livni, who is doubling as justice minister, will have no choice but to do so, since she chairs the Ministerial Legislation Committee and will have to decide whether to oppose or support the Shas and UTJ bills or to seek a compromise.