A judge has refused to allow a Muslim woman to enter a plea in court until she removed her burka, claiming he could not confirm the woman’s identity without seeing her face.
The 21-year-old woman from Hackney in east London, who is accused of witness intimidation, had refused to take off the full-length veil and reveal her face at Blackfriars Crown Court, the Judicial Office confirmed.
Judge Peter Murphy said there was a risk that a different person could pretend to be the defendant in the dock, and argued that the principle of open justice was more important than the woman’s religious beliefs.
He also refused a request from the woman’s barrister for a female police officer or prison guard to confirm that she was the same person as in police arrest pictures.
The judge reportedly told the woman: “I can’t, as a circuit judge, accept a plea from a person whose identity I am unable to ascertain.”
A Judicial Office spokeswoman said: “There was an issue with the judge asking to confirm the identity of the woman and he has adjourned the case until September 12, when he may hear legal argument about the issue.”
The defendant is alleged to have intimidated a witness in Finsbury Park, north London, in June.
Official guidelines were issued to judges in 2009 suggesting a “range of different possible approaches” to the matter of women wearing a burka or niqab in court, but stating that “the interests of justice remain paramount”.
The guidelines state: “For a witness or defendant a sensitive request to remove a veil, with no sense of obligation or pressure, may be appropriate, but careful thought must be given to such a request.
“The very fact of appearing in a court or tribunal will be quite traumatic for many, and additional pressure may well have an adverse impact on the quality of evidence given.”
While there is no ban on Islamic dress in public places in the UK, schools have been allowed to forge their own dress codes after a 2007 directive which followed several high-profile court cases.
The controversial garment has been the subject of an attempted ban within Parliament, however, with Tory MPs listing “ban the burka” as a proposed Private Members Bill earlier this year, alongside bringing back the death penalty and abolishing the position of Deputy Prime Minister.
The UK Independence Party, which argues that the burka is a sign of an “increasingly divided Britain”, has long supported a public ban, claiming the religious veils pose a potential security risk.
Ukip became the first British party to call for a total ban in January 2010. Both France and Belgium have banned the full-face veil from public places.