Justice, the veil and a fair trial

Justice, the veil and a fair trial

The President of the UK Supreme court, Baroness Hale, has suggested that women giving evidence in court should not be able to hide their faces behind religious veils. However, does this position actually contribute to fairer trials or just deter women who choose to wear the veil from appearing in court at all?

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During a speech at the Oxford centre for Islamic Studies, Baroness Hale stated: “We do take it for granted in this country that observing a person’s facial expressions, body language and general demeanour are an important part of assessing their credibility.” This debate has carried on for a number of years now, however,  these  recent comments from Baroness Hale have aligned with the release of the Judicial College’s 2018 edition of the Equal Treatment Bench Book; designed to provide guidance to judges on these sensitive issues.

At JAN Trust, we have years of experience working closely with Muslim women who choose to wear the veil. These women choose to veil themselves for many reasons, ones which often involve deep and profound beliefs which are integral to their individual religious and personal identities. Many long-term users of our services, who choose to manifest their religious beliefs in this way, have told us personally that they find compulsory removal of the veil in front of an audience a deep humiliation.

Regardless of whatever opinions wider society has about this issue, or whatever anyone thinks about the rightness or wrongness of veiling oneself, the reality is this: the removal of a woman’s veil in court will often result in feelings of shame, humiliation and embarrassment. This is true whether someone empathises with their feelings or not and this will ultimately deter many women who veil themselves from giving evidence in court in the first place.

This wields larger implications for the judicial process as cases involving women who wear niqabs potentially speaking out against a defendant may be dropped due to lack of evidence. In a scenario in which they are the victims of abuse, the perpetrator may then walk free and the cycle of abuse continues with no justice being served, especially in cases of VAWG, DV and islamophobia-related hate crimes.

Victim protection should be our utmost aim and responsibility as well as seeking justice for those who have been subjected to criminal acts. With the dramatic rise of islamophobia and incidents of related hate crimes which disproportionately affect visibly veiled Muslim women – It is now more important than ever to protect these victims diligently.

It is clear that telling women to remove their veils does nothing to actually help women in the court room who are already marginalised, but it is also to the detriment of the judicial system itself. When these women are being deterred from even giving evidence in the first place, justice will not prevail and the adversarial trial system we have in the UK becomes ineffective for these communities. In order to be able to prosecute effectively we need to respect the rights and freedoms of these women to manifest their religious beliefs in a way that is authentic to them without dictating how they should dress.

The former President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, has previously stated that Muslim women should be allowed to wear the veil in court. He has suggested that judges should show respect to other cultures and religions, acknowledging that some other cultures and/or religions may consider it inappropriate for example, to look others in the eye, take an oath or to appear in public with their face uncovered; things that we take for granted and fail to fully appreciate as a society.

His comments stand in stark contrast with those of Baroness Hale, who stresses the importance of visible facial expressions and body language in the court room. Although these factors may be of significance to some court room professionals, the jury, ultimately make a decision based on evidence, not on facial expressions. If a woman chooses not to provide evidence due to the prospect of public humiliation, then the case won’t continue long enough to even consider these factors in the first place.

The new Judicial College guidelines have advised judges that the ordering of the removal of the veil should carry with it other options for these women. For example, court room artists should be banned from including these women in their drawings and that a screen should be provided to limit the amount of observers in the court room environment. If this must be the case, then we would suggest that further options, such as privately filmed testimonies, must be explored and every attempt must be made to allow justice to be carried out.

At JAN Trust, we believe that the requirement to remove the veil in a courtroom environment ultimately hinders the judicial process. Many women choose to suffer alone and in silence rather than take a case to court and this only leads to further marginalisation. We believe that this form of religious observation should be respected by our judicial system and every alternative has to be explored in order for Muslim women who choose to wear the veil to truly be able to find justice within this system without compromising their beliefs. Since 1989, we have fought for and supported BAMER and Muslim women whether they have been victims of crime or are in need of the vital services we provide. To find out more about the work we do visit our website: https://jantrust.org/.