Britain’s most senior judge has said that Muslim women should be allowed to wear the veil in court as it is important to show respect for other people’s cultures.
Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court said that it was crucial for judges and courts to “show and be seen to show” respect towards other cultures, including having an understanding of “different cultural and social habits” of those who appear in court, either as defendants, witnesses or jurors, the Telegraph has reported.
In 2013 the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, called for clear guidance on the wearing of face veils in court, following controversy over a trial at London’s Blackfriars Crown Court of a Muslim woman accused of witness intimidation.
Rebekah Dawson claimed her religion prevented her from removing her veil in front of men. But Judge Peter Murphy said that it was “of cardinal importance” to the adversarial system that a jury be able to see the face of a defendant whilst that person is giving evidence.
He added that defendants could not expect the court to “set aside its established procedure” to accommodate a “particular religious practice”.
“That would be to privilege religious practice in a discriminatory way and would adversely affect the administration of justice,” he said.
Lord Neuberger’s comments on the matter came during a recent lecture on the need for courts to be less intimidating. He told members of the Criminal Justice Alliance that judges and lawyers needed to recognise how “artificial and intimidating” courts can be, adding “I sometimes wonder whether our trial procedures really are the best way of getting at the truth.”
He insisted that this did not mean a radical overhaul of the judicial system, but said that judges should be “sensitive” to the fact that they normally come from the “more privileged sector of society” than those taking part in proceedings, 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.”
His comments have been welcomed by Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, who 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.”
And Suleman Nagdi, of the Leicester-based Federation of Muslim Organisations, was equally supportive, describing 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.”
But But Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society disagreed, saying: “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 Crown 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.”