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Personal Laws: Undetermined Norms and Undetermined Concept?


Many Asian and African constitutional and statutory texts use the phrase personal laws in order to determine the rules applicable to family matters such a marriage, divorce, maintenance and in some countries inheritance. However, this term is extremely vague and often without a clear definition in the legal texts. This paper tries to show the high degree of un-determination of the statutory references to personal laws. This chaotic situation can be explained by historical and political factors. Nevertheless, the paper proposes to stipulate a conventional definition of personal laws in order to facilitate the comparison between the Asian and African countries with a plurality of personal laws. Based on common features of these legal systems knowing a plurality of personal laws, such a definition can be useful for practical as well as for theoretical purposes.

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  1. Meijers (1934).

  2. De statutis personalibus et realibus.

  3. Lainé (1888, p. 313).

  4. Traité de la personnalité ou de la réalité des lois.

  5. Guterman (1990, pp. 28 and 273).

  6. Markovits (2008, p. 90).

  7. Saying that “law concerning the status and the capacity of persons govern French persons, even those residing in foreign countries”.

  8. (1889, The English personal status).

  9. Ahmed (2016).

  10. Desai (2008), p. 185. Conversion does not dissolve a marriage concluded under the past personal law, but it provides a ground for divorce.

  11. 1972 AIR 2229, 1973 SCR (1) 231.

  12. Lebanon, Israel, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Syria, Jordan, Philippines, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain.

  13. Menski (2006), p. 274.

  14. Nasir (2009).

  15. Sezgin (2013).

  16. Notwithstanding any custom or usage to the contrary, in all questions (save questions relating to agricultural land) regarding intestate succession, special property of females, including personal property inherited or obtained under contract or gift or any other provision of Personal Law, marriage, dissolution of marriage, including talaq, ila, zihar, lian, khula and mubaraat, maintenance, dower guardianship, gifts, trusts and trust properties, and wakfs (other than charities and charitable institutions and charitable and religious endowments) the rule of decision in cases where the parties are Muslims shall be the Muslim Personal law (Shariat).

  17. Hanna (2017), p. 32.

  18. White (2011), p. 174.

  19. White (2011), p. 187.

  20. Hanna (2017), p. 98–99.

  21. Dinstein (1989), 327 about the 1970 Amendment imposing the definition of a “Jew” in Israel.

  22. The Jakarta Post, November, 7, 2017.

  23. Desai (2008), p. 102; Maneka Gandhi v. Indira Gandhi, AIR 284 Del 428.

  24. Depreux (2001, pp. 57–58).

  25. Gunn (2003).

  26. Ebi (2012).

  27. Bernard-Maugiron (2010).

  28. Sezgin (2003, p. 90).

  29. Hanna (2017).

  30. Cooray (2003, pp. 4–5).

  31. Mallampalli (2010) shows how the proof of one’s customs could be used in order to escape to personal law in the first decades of colonization, before being abandoned for more rigid rules after 1860.

  32. Bonnan (1999).

  33. van den Boogert (2005), Tait-Slys (2014).

  34. Sezgin (2013, p. 25) arguing against this “self-reinforcing path”.

  35. Griffiths (1986, p. 5), Menski (2006, p. 115).

  36. Hanna (2017, p. 57): one has to add that the Lebanese State has never officially recognized the statuses that were presented before the state authorities.

  37. Sezgin (2013, pp. 44–46).

  38. Woodman et al. (2004, p. 222 about Tanzania).

  39. Bernard-Maugiron (2010, for the case of Egypt).


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Halpérin, JL. Personal Laws: Undetermined Norms and Undetermined Concept?. Liverpool Law Rev 40, 253–270 (2019).

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  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Legal concept
  • Legal pluralism
  • Personal law