The widely reported criminal trial of a British Muslim woman, who is insisting on wearing a full veil in court on religious grounds, is relevant to all areas of our justice system. This is reportedly the first time that a criminal trial in the UK has been halted because of this issue, which is rapidly becoming something of a political hot potato.
Other EU member states have a very clear policy: in France for example full facial veils are banned in all public places. The UK is well known for its broadly tolerant attitude, and this is why this particular case has attracted such huge media attention. There is perhaps an obvious conflict arising in this situation between the right to religious freedom, and the long-established principles of our justice system which include trial by jury, only now being properly grappled with as a result of this case.
A preliminary issue has been how to properly identify a veiled woman, in this instance a defendant in criminal proceedings accused of witness intimidation. Last week this was resolved temporarily by a female police officer, present when the defendant was photographed in police custody, identifying the woman behind closed doors. Whilst this was sufficient to enable the defendant to enter a plea, the question remains as to whether she should be allowed to wear her full facial veil, or niqab, when her trial gets underway in November and a jury is asked to assess the reliability of her evidence.
Of course, the niqab is not banned in the UK, despite a number of prominent people now calling for a ban, reportedly including home office minister Jeremy Browne according to Sky News today. Some, including the defendant’s legal team, argue that being ordered to remove the veil in court would compromise the woman’s right to religious freedom. Yet even in the Muslim community there is huge debate as to whether wearing the veil is indeed a religious statement, or a cultural one which could perhaps be more easily overcome.
Arguably the greater risk to human rights in this case is the jurors’ potential inability to properly assess the defendant should they be prevented from seeing her expressions and general demeanor throughout the trial, particularly when giving evidence. The European Convention on Human Rights enables the State to intervene and insist that a Muslim woman removes her religious dress if required to uphold the rule of law; there is an interesting BBC News article discussing this particular issue. Should the impact on the woman’s sense of dignity be prioritised over the potential threat to justice?
The general mood is perhaps reflected by the views reported in The Independent yesterday, of Yasmin Alibhai Brown, who says ‘toleration is good but not when it prevents fair interrogation and robust argument’. Perhaps this sums up the general mood and we should not be afraid of saying so.
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