As the majority of Muslim marriages in England are not legally recognised, women are in a particularly vulnerable position should those marriages break down.

However, in one recent case a novel judgement has changed the way for the Muslim wife to seek some financial recourse. The majority of Muslim marriages in England would not be recognised in the English courts. Typically, Muslim couples celebrate a traditional Nikah marriage ceremony but often they do not then go on to register the marriage as a civil marriage.

A survey from 2014 demonstrates, as many as 9 out of 10 women in some parts of the UK have ‘Nikah-only’ marriages. In essence, they exist in sharia law, but not in English civil law.

The consequences may be drastic if the marriages fall apart.

A Muslim woman who has had a Nikah-only marriage and divorces would not be able to seek redress at the family court for maintenance and a share of the family home. She is likely to be advised by a lawyer that she was, in effect, never married in the eyes of English law.

For a number of years, Muslims, feminists, secularists and others have been drawing attention to this issue.

In the meantime, an interesting legal development for married Muslim women in England did come two years ago. Mr Justice Williams handed a unique judgment in the family court in London, in the case of Nasreen Akhter v Mohammed Shabaz Khan.

When Nasreen Akhter petitioned for divorce, her husband’s defence was predictable. He said they had never entered a marriage that was valid according to English law. Therefore, a divorce in the English courts was not possible and his wife was of course entitled to nothing.

The court agreed with the husband that the marriage was not valid. However, instead of simply declaring that the marriage was a “non-marriage”(classed as partners, boyfriend or girlfriend etc) Mr Justice Williams then took a different path. He found that it was “void” for the purposes of section 11 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

A person in a “void” marriage can, by contrast, still apply to the court to deal with maintenance and to divide assets like the family home.

By saying that a Nikah-only marriage was “void”, the judge gave the wife some of the same rights as a couple who had been validly married all along, even though the marriage had never been registered.

The judge interpreted the right to respect for one’s “private and family life” (Article 8 of the European Convention) in an expansive way to grant the wife her petition through application of Human Rights Law.

The decision represents a bold step in the protection of Muslim women who might otherwise find themselves abandoned and penniless.

The case will have significant implications for women who marry under Sharia Law but not UK law and could give them rights to split the financial assets related to the union, as well as securing a divorce more easily.