Church leaders criticise plans to drop court oath

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Plans to abolish the oath that witnesses swear in court and replace it with one that makes no reference to God have provoked protests from Britain's church leaders.

Plans to abolish the oath that witnesses swear in court and replace it with one that makes no reference to God have provoked protests from Britain's church leaders.

Under the proposed change, recommended in a report commissioned by the Lord Chancellor, members of all faiths would swear a secular oath requiring them simply to promise to tell the truth. The report concludes that the traditional oath is no longer relevant in many people's lives.

The Court of Appeal, which produced the report, wrote: "A combination of archaic words invoking God as the guarantor of proposed evidence and the perfunctory manner in which they are usually uttered detracts from, rather than underlines, the solemnity of the undertaking."

Yesterday, the Church of England said it was "very concerned" at what it described as an attempt to "divorce religion from justice". It added: "We will have to look at this proposal seriously to see whether it really would prevent people of faith reflecting that in the oath."

Tom Horwood, for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said: "I think most Catholics would appreciate some sort of choice in the matter because for many people their faith means something to them." He said the Catholic Church would want to contribute to the debate before the Government reached any conclusions on the subject of oaths.

Lord Justice Auld, in his review of the criminal courts, says: "Today most witnesses regard [the oath's] administration as a quaint court ritual which has little bearing on the evidence they are going to give; they will have resolved by then to tell the truth or lie."

He argues that the "general rule" requiring witnesses to give evidence on oath is relatively recent practice, developing only in the 18th century. "By the late 19th century judges seem to have regarded its significance as an acknowledgement by the witness of his belief that, if he did not keep to it, he would suffer some kind of divine punishment," he says.

The current oath uses the form of words: "I swear by almighty God that I shall tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

It is common practice for witnesses and jurors to be given the choice of affirming or swearing an oath while holding a religious text. Lord Justice Auld recommends replacing the affirmation and the oath with a single promise to tell the truth.

"I consider that it should now be enough to mark the beginnings of a witness's evidence and to acknowledge the great diversity of religious or non-religious beliefs, by requiring him simply to promise tell the truth," he says.

Lord Justice Auld has also called for reform of the jury system so that more people are eligible for service and fewer of those who are called find ways of excusing themselves.

All these proposals will be considered as part of a public consultation exercise, which is to be completed by the end of January. The Government will then set out its proposals in a White Paper.