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Lord Neuberger dismisses suggestion Muslim women should wear niqabs in court

Controversy of full-face veil in the legal system raises its head in tabloid media yet again

20 April 2015

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Lord Neuberger has distanced himself from media reports that he is in favour of allowing Muslim women to wear full-face veils while giving evidence in the courts.

In a recent speech to the Criminal Justice Alliance on fairness in courts, Lord Neuberger said: '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.'

He continued: '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.'

Elements of the press, including the Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Mirror and the Daily Mail, all reported that in his speech Lord Neuberger argued for Muslim women to be allowed to wear the niqab in court. The Independent, the Guardian, and the BBC reported that the UK's top judge had called for more of respect women's right to wear veil in court.

Responding to the media scrutiny, a spokesman for the Supreme Court said: 'Following various media reports based on a lecture he gave last week, Lord Neuberger would like to emphasise that he did not say that Muslim women should be allowed to wear a full-face veil while giving evidence in court.

'His lecture was aimed at encouraging judges to develop a greater understanding of the perspectives of those less experienced in the criminal justice system, especially when faced with having to give evidence or face cross-examination.

'Lord Neuberger mentioned a number of examples of cultural and religious views and practices which might lead some people to find such an experience intimidating, but made it clear that the court's primary duty is to establish the truth and determine cases fairly.'

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, has previously called for clear guidance on the issue of veils in court following a case at London's Blackfriars Crown Court, in which a Muslim woman was accused of witness intimidation.

Rebekah Dawson said that for religious reasons, she would refuse to remove her niqab and reveal her face in front of men. In an attempt to respect the woman's right to practice her religious beliefs, the judge ruled that he would offer a screen to shield her from public view while giving evidence, but that she had to be seen by him, the jury and lawyers.

Dawson refused and was later jailed for six months following a change in her plea to guilty.

Following the case, which attracted significant media attention, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced that it should be for judges to decide whether witnesses or defendants should be asked to remove their veil.

The Bar Council polled 400 of its members on the issue. Some 34 per cent supported the ban on veils only when the defendant gave evidence, while 57 per cent would go further than what judge Murphy had decided recently, saying that they would insist on the removal of the veil for the entire proceedings.

 

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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