Muslim women should be allowed to wear the veil in court, top judge suggests
Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, says that judges should show respect toward different cultures
Judges should allow Muslim women to appear in court wearing a full-face veil, Britain’s most senior judge has suggested.
Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, said it was crucial that courts and judges “show, and be seen to show” respect towards different customs.
Perhaps the good judge missed the memo that Mohammedans do not respect infidel law. In fact, many of them refuse to stand for the judge and demand to be tried under Islamic law. (SY)
He said this included having an understanding of the “different cultural and social habits” of those appearing as witnesses, defendants or jurors in cases.
His comments, in a lecture about the need for courts to be less intimidating, come at a time of uncertainty over the place of the Muslim niqab, or full face-veil, in the legal system.
In 2013 the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said there was a need for clear guidance on the issue following controversy over the trial at London’s Blackfriars Crown Court of a Muslim woman accused of witness intimidation.
Rebekah Dawson was told that she would be forced to take off her full-face veil if she gave evidence, which she declined to do. She was later jailed for six months after changing her plea to guilty.
In his address to the Criminal Justice Alliance, Lord Neuberger said judges and lawyers often failed to recognise how “artificial and intimidating” courts could be for ordinary people, adding: “I sometimes wonder whether our trial procedures really are the best way of getting at the truth.”
He continued: “Would you feel that you had given of your best if you had been forced to give evidence in unfamiliar surroundings, with lots of strangers watching, in an intimidating court, with lawyers in funny clothes asking questions, often aggressively and trying to catch you out, and with no ability to tell the story as you remember it?”
He said this did not mean a call for a major overhaul of court proceedings but said judges, lawyers and court staff must do as much as possible to help people feel at ease in court.
Significantly, he said judges should be “sensitive” to the fact that they usually came from “more privileged sector of society” than many of those facing them, adding: “This is where neutrality shades into the second requirement, respect.
“Judges have to show, and have to be seen to show, respect to everybody equally, and that requires an understanding of different cultural and social habits.
“It is necessary to have some understanding as to how people from different cultural, social, religious or other backgrounds think and behave and how they expect others to behave.
“Well known examples include how some religions consider it inappropriate to take the oath, how some people consider it rude to look other people in the eye, how some women find it inappropriate to appear in public with their face uncovered, and how some people deem it inappropriate to confront others or to be confronted – for instance with an outright denial.
“More broadly, judges should be courteous and, generally, good-humoured; and, while they should be firm, they should never, however great the temptation, lose their temper. ”
Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: ““No one disputes that in the dispensation of justice, the law of the land must be upheld. Lord Neuberger’s eminently sensible statement also upholds our best British traditions of accommodation and fair play.
“A judge who respects and is attuned to the sensitivities of those in the court room should hopefully expect better results. In the case of the minority of those people who do cover their face for religious, cultural or any other reason, they should be allowed to do so unless the situation demands otherwise.”
But Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Lord Neuberger understandably recommends judges understand the expectations of how those ‘from different cultural, social, religious or other backgrounds think and behave and how they expect others to behave’ and that the judiciary should show ‘respect to everybody equally’.
“It was a missed opportunity, however, not to acknowledge that occasionally – for example on a defendant wearing a full face veil – doing so might conflict with justice being seen to be done, or even justice being done.
“My concern is not theoretical; it is now 18 months since a judge at Blackfriars Magistrate Court wasted a great deal of court time dealing with the question of full-face veils, and made a heartfelt plea for central guidance to avoid this inefficient use of expensive court’s resources being replicated elsewhere. The Lord Chief Justice’s office has been dealing with this for a long time but seems disappointingly reluctant to issue any direction.”
Suleman Nagdi, of the Leicester-based Federation of Muslim Organisations, described Lord Neuberger’s remarks as “heart-warming and really welcome”.
“This is what our great British system is built on: respect for the other,” he said.
“We must remember that there is an impact on legislation in other parts of the world whenever we show good practice in the United Kingdom.
“I am sure that this example will be followed in other parts of the world which are less tolerant in respecting minority communities.