Doctor’s divorce becomes test case clash

Dr Zaid Al-Saffar
Dr Zaid Al-Saffar

A Scarborough doctor has been ordered to pay his ex-wife £60,000 maintenance after being told his muslim traditions wont absolve him of his financial responsibilities.

Dr Zaid Al-Saffar, a consultant rheumatoligist at Scarborough Hospital and head of the town’s Islamic society, has found himself at the centre of a test case clash of Muslim and UK matrimonial law after refusing to pay his ex wife maintenance.

Speaking at the Appeal Court, Lord Justice Ward ruled that Dr Al-Saffar’s belief that maintenance paymets to spouses are “illigitimate or illegal according to Islamic culture” is no defence to orders made in English divorce courts.

The judge concluded the case by telling Dr Al-Saffar: “Life is sometimes hard; do not be consumed with bitterness.”

However Dr Al-Saffar expressed his discontent outside court afterwards, saying: “Family law in this county is biased against Muslim people.”

The case has hit national headlines, and acts a warning to Muslim couples across the country who believe their marriages are ordered according to sharia law and agree to be bound by Islamic courts.

Lord Justice Ward told the Scarborough doctor, who had ignored a previous order made at Blackburn County Court in May 2008, “the rule in this country is that you share and the starting point is equal divison.”

The row began when Dr Al-Saffar and his wife, academic Hanan Al-Saffer split in 2008, having married in 2000 and going on to have two children.

When the pair wed Sharia tradition saw Dr Al-Saffar pay a gift to his bride. Because of this Mrs Al-Saffar then signed away her half of the matrimonial home in Belvedere Road.

In traditional Muslim societies there is often no expectation that the ex-husband will pay maintenance to the divorced wife and that she has to look to her extended family for support.

Judge Jones however refused to take this view of the situation at the original divorce hearing and ordered Dr Al-Saffar to pay his ex a total of £60,000 in personal maintenance for her contribution to the marriage.

However the doctor only made four payments, leading to his wife obtaining an order from District Judge Alan Booth in February this year, directing him to pay her the arrears of more than £40,000 in a lump sum and resume monthly payments.

Dr Al-Saffar challenged that order at London’s Apeal Court, telling Lord Justice Ward that he stopped making payments four months after the County Court order because he had heard that his wife “didn’t need the money” and was “very very well off” after inheriting £250,000 from her father.

But Lord Justice Ward dismissed his appeal, upholding judge Booth’s finding that the doctor was “determined not to pay” because “he felt the payments were illigitimate or illegal according to Islamic culture and that he was not going to make them.”

The doctor, representing himself, told the Appeal Court: “I’m hard working; I pay my taxes and look after my community. I have nothing but respect for the court’s order, but I only stopped paying because all her family were telling me she’s got millions. She doesn’t need it.

“By playing the system and pretending to be a victim she got everything, which I think is totally unfair,” he told the judge.

But Lord Justice Ward told Dr Al-Saffar: “You came out of the marriage without having made your wife any substantial capital payment.”

He added that Judge Booth had found in favour of Mrs Al-Saffar’s submission that “the husband was dissatisfied, saying that the payments were illigitimate or illegal acccording to Islamic culture and that he was not going to make them.

“The judge found that you hadn’t made payments under the order and you were determined not to pay. The judge was satisfied that you had no intention of paying,” Lord Justice Ward said.

“When two parties give accounts of why monies were not paid and a judge believes one of them, it is very rare for the Court of Appeal to interfere.

“The misfortune for this unfortunate ex-husband is that the judge believed the wife. There is very little this court can do to alter that,” he went on.

“The starting point of any division of capital is that one starts from a position of equality.

“After a marriage which lasted a reasonably long time, and during which the wife cared for the two children, not pursung any career of her own, the starting point ordinarily would be to divide the marital assets.

“She may have felt for religious reasons that she shouldn’t accept a lump sum. The husband has kept the whole of the capital in the marital home and the wife has not recieved any of it.

“In those circumstances the order for spousal maintenance was a perfectly proper and fair order to make. This is a husband who has the means to pay the £41,000 arrears

“The husband has to try too understand that inherited wealth is not available for distribution especially when it comes in after or shortly before the breakdown of the marriage.

“That would not reduce the husband’s obligation to make a proper contribution to his wife. The judge’s order cannot be shown to be wrong. I must dismiss this application,” Lord Justice Ward ruled