Top judge calls for respect for veiled women in court

Lord Neuberger Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation

Judges need to show respect to women who choose to cover their faces in court for religious reasons according to the UK's most senior judge.

Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, said judges must be fair to those involved in trials.

They should have an "understanding as to how people from different cultural, social, religious or other backgrounds think and behave", he added.

He also warned against judges being influenced by defendants' backgrounds.

In a speech entitled Fairness in the courts: the best we can do, Lord Neuberger said: "Judges have to show, and have to be seen to show, respect to everybody equally, and that requires an understanding of different cultural and social habits.

"It is necessary to have some understanding as to how people from different cultural, social, religious or other backgrounds think and behave and how they expect others to behave.

"Well-known examples include how some religions consider it inappropriate to take the oath, how some people consider it rude to look other people in the eye, how some women find it inappropriate to appear in public with their face uncovered, and how some people deem it inappropriate to confront others or to be confronted - for instance with an outright denial."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Rebekah Dawson refused to remove her niqab in court to give evidence

Last year a judge warned a jury at the trial of a Muslim woman wearing the niqab that it would be "quite wrong" to be prejudiced against a person's expression of religious faith.

Judge Peter Murphy said the defendant, Rebekah Dawson was "fully entitled" to dress as she chooses.

But the 22-year-old waived her right to give evidence in her defence after it was ruled that she would have to remove the veil, which made only her eyes visible, if she took the stand.

Dawson was jailed for six months for intimidating a witness in March 2014. She had initially denied the charge, but later changed her plea to guilty.

'Subconscious thoughts'

In his speech to the Criminal Justice Alliance, Lord Neuberger also said judges and lawyers should always keep in mind how "intimidating" the court process can be for those involved in trials, including "the parties, their families, the victims, the witnesses and the jurors".

Lord Neuberger also warned of the possibility that judges could be influenced by people's backgrounds.

He said: "A white male public school judge presiding in a trial of an unemployed traveller from Eastern Europe accused of assaulting or robbing a white female public school woman will, I hope, always be unbiased.

"However he should always think to himself what his subconscious may be thinking or how it may be causing him to act; and he should always remember how things may look to the defendant, and indeed to the jury and to the public generally."

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