A veiled threat to race relations? Judge rules that woman must remove niqab to give evidence during trial

Lawyers argue removing veil would breach her human rights

Britain's leading Muslim organisation warned tonight that a judge's landmark ruling that women should not give evidence in court whilst wearing the veil threatened to undermine the nation's long-standing tradition of religious tolerance.

Amid warnings by the Muslim Council of Britain of an increasingly "hysterical" debate on the niqab, Judge Peter Murphy concluded that a female defendant would be allowed to attend court whilst wearing the Islamic face covering but would not be permitted to take the witness stand unless she removed it.

Judge Murphy also laid down the gauntlet to Parliament and the higher courts to provide a "definitive statement" on Muslim dress codes which he said were fully compatible with participation in public life and not a form of repression against women.

However, he said that the human rights of the 22-year-old, who has worn the niqab since May 2012, were secondary to the requirement that a judge and jury see a defendant's face whilst they gave evidence in court.

"That is not a discrimination against religion. It is a matter of upholding the rule of law in a democratic society," he said.

The woman's lawyers are now considering whether to seek a judicial review on the ban.

The Muslim Council called for calm on the subject and said it recognised that the judge had attempted to balance the woman’s religious rights with the needs of the court.

Talat Ahmed, chair of the council's social and family affairs committee said: "Every time we discuss the niqab, it usually comes with a diet of bigoted commentary about our faith and the place of Islam in Britain. There are few people who wear the niqab, and they should be allowed to wear this veil if they freely decide to do so."

She said that banning the garment was "un-British" and would "involve embarking on a slippery slope where the freedom to wear religious attire of all faiths would be at risk."

In his 35-page ruling Judge Murphy, sitting at Blackfriars Crown Court, said he had sought to take the "least restrictive approach" to dealing with the issue.

The woman denies attempting to intimidate a witness. The judge had earlier refused to allow her to enter a plea unless she removed her veil but last week climbed down pending yesterday's ruling.

When she stands trial in November the court will be adjourned and cleared to allow her to identify herself to a female court officer. When she gives evidence with her face uncovered she will be allowed to do so from behind a screen or via video-link so that she will not be on view.

The judge also took the unusual step of banning court drawings - a move which is likely to be challenged by media groups.

If the woman refuses to remove the veil she will not be permitted to testify.

Judge Murphy said he did not doubt the defendant's sincerity in wearing the garment.

 "The niqab is worn by choice by many spiritually-minded, thoughtful and intelligent women, who do not deserve to be demeaned by superficial and uninformed criticisms of their choice," he said.

Former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald had earlier said that it was "unarguable" that Muslim women should be banned from wearing a veil while in court on trial.

Home Office minister Jeremy Browne called for a national debate on the issue which follows the decision of college in Birmingham to reverse its decision that a female student remove her veil whilst attending.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg repeated his opposition to a ban yesterday whilst David Cameron said it was up to into individual establishments to set their own dress codes. A Private Members Bill currently before Parliament that would outlaw the wearing of the niqab in a public place is unlikely to become law.

But Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said the judge was wrong to allow the woman to attend court with her face covered. The organisation is set to raise the matter with the Office of Judicial Complaints demanding that all participants in a trial can be clearly seen.

"It is 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," he said.

However, Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, welcomed the judge's ruling.

"He has shown a sensitivity and clarity that can only further build confidence in our courts in Britain's diverse communities and around the world," she said.

Judge’s comments

I reject the view, which has its adherents among the public and the press, that the niqab is somehow incompatible with participation in public life in England and Wales; or is nothing more than a form of abuse, imposed under the guise of religion, on women by men. There may be individual cases where that is true. But the niqab is worn by choice by many spiritually-minded, thoughtful and intelligent women, who do not deserve to be demeaned by superficial and uninformed criticisms of their choice.

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 (the defendant’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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum