The National Secular Society is considering making a complaint to the Office of Judicial Complaints about a court's decision that a Muslim woman will be allowed to stand trial wearing a full-face veil, but must remove it while giving evidence.
The case involves a 21 year old woman accused of allegedly intimidating a witness, involved in a separate case, in June this year. The woman had previously been allowed to enter her plea after she agreed to lift her veil in front of a female police officer, in a room next to the court
Ruling at Blackfriars Crown Court on how the case should proceed, Judge Peter Murphy said: "In general, the defendant is free to wear the niqab during trial. If the defendant gives evidence she must remove the niqab throughout her evidence. The court may use its inherent powers to do what it can to alleviate any discomfort, for example by allowing the use of screens or allowing her to give evidence by live link.
Responding to the ruling, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "In the interests of justice, we consider it vital that defendants' faces are visible at all times, including while others are giving evidence, so we regret the judge's decision not to require this. We will now consider a complaint to the Office of Judicial Complaints and will be calling for visibility of defendants throughout court hearings to be made mandatory, and not subject to judges' discretion."
Judge Murphy said that when the woman is asked to take off the niqab ahead of giving evidence, she should be given some time to reflect beforehand. "If she refuses, the judge should not allow her to give evidence and must give the jury a clear direction", he said. She must also remove it in front of a female police officer or other witness for the purposes of identification, as she has done so in previous hearings. Although a screen will be offered to shield her from public view, she must still be seen by the judge, jury and legal counsel, although she also has the option to give evidence over a live TV link.
The judge said it was necessary for a democratic society to restrict the rights of a defendant to wear a niqab during court proceedings. He said: "Balancing the right of religious manifestation against the rights and freedoms of the public, the press and other interested parties such as the complainant in the proper administration of justice, the latter must prevail over D's right to manifest her religion or belief during the proceedings against her to the extent necessary in the interests of justice. No tradition or practice, whether religious or otherwise, can claim to occupy such a privileged position that the rule of law, open justice and the adversarial trial process are sacrificed to accommodate it. That is not a discrimination against religion, it is a matter of upholding the rule of law in a democratic society."