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An Islamic council which mediates on Muslim marriages has defended itself after a member of staff was secretly filmed telling a woman complaining of domestic violence to only go to the police as a "last resort".

The Islamic Sharia Council, in Francis Road, Leyton, was investigated by the BBC's Panorama documentary series this week following allegations it was ruling on cases it had no legal authority to get involved in.

Sharia partnerships are not recognised under UK law as marriages and are often obtained by couples in addition to civil marriages.

Islamic councils can only issue divorces for Sharia 'marriages' and have no legal rights to rule on issues such as child custody.

The programme heard from a number of different women who claimed to have had great difficulty in securing Sharia divorces from their husbands despite being granted civil divorces, as well as claims it was ruling on custody issues.

It was alleged that some women who use Sharia councils are unaware that such organisations have no legal rights to impose conditions on custody.

To investigate the claims the BBC sent an undercover reporter to the council to ask for advice, where she claimed her husband regularly hit her.

She was encouraged to bring her husband to the Sharia Council for a meeting to discuss their marriage and told she should only go to police as a "last resort".

Nazir Afzal, the CPS chief crown prosecutor for the North West, who specialises in such cases, told the programme: "What I have just witnessed is so dangerous. If there is early intervention we know that people's lives can be saved, they can be spared significant harm".

But in a statement Leyton Sharia Council said it took a "harsh" stance on domestic violence and said it never forced any woman who wanted a divorce to stay with their husband.

A spokesman said the secret recording was "underhand" and that conversations had been edited out of context.

He added: "It seems that Panorama had a pre-determined agenda and stereotype of how shariah councils operate, and they ensured that a round peg was forced to fit the square hole of this agenda..

"The council takes a harsh stance on domestic violence. Women who cite domestic abuse in their applications for divorce are advised strongly to report it to the police."

The council said the woman who took part in the secret filming had only come to the site on the pretext of wanting advice and that she told staff she did "not want to get her husband in trouble".

The Guardian is awaiting a comment from the BBC.