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Controversial ruling on ˜elephant in the courtroom

On 16 september 2013, HHJ Peter Murphy handed down a controversial ruling in relation to the wearing of the niqab, a full face veil, during a criminal hearing at Blackfriars Crown Court.

The defendant, a Muslim woman who cannot be named for legal reasons, is standing trial at Blackfriars Crown Court for witness intimidation.  she wears a niqab and intended to do so throughout the entirety of the trial.  At a previous hearing on 12 september 2013 she had been allowed to enter her plea without removing the veil after a female police officer confirmed her identity.

Her barrister, susan Meek, argued that it would be a breach of her clients rights under Article 9 of the Human Rights Act to ask her to remove the veil in spite of her wishes.  she submitted that there was no legislation that prevented her client wearing the veil throughout the proceedings.

During the later directions hearing, HHJ Murphy said that the woman was allowed to wear the niqab throughout the trial but must remove it when giving evidence to the court.  He described the veil as ˜the elephant in the courtroom.  He further stated that: ˜The ability of the jury to see the defendant for the purposes of evaluating her evidence is crucial ¦ The right to give evidence involves a corresponding duty to submit that evidence to the scrutiny of the jury.

The Judge suggested that, if necessary, a screen could be used to shield the defendant from the court room at large but that he, the jury and the barristers would need to see the womans unmasked face during her testimony.  It is anticipated that this ruling will set a precedent for the courts in other similar scenarios.  The Judge also said that courtroom sketches of the defendant without her niqab will be prohibited.

The National secular society indicated that it would lodge an official complaint on the Judges ruling.  Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director, said: ˜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¦.We will be complaining to the Office for Judicial Complaints and also be asking senior legal officers to make visibility throughout court hearings mandatory, and not subject to judges' discretion.

In contrast to Mr Woods views, the charity, Liberty, welcomed the ruling.  Director shami Chakrabarti commented: ˜Credit to Judge Murphy for seeking to balance the freedom of conscience of the defendant with the effective administration of justice. 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.

The trial is due to be heard on 4 November 2013.


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