Face coverings must be removed when giving evidence – Right or Wrong?

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Judge Peter Murphy recently delivered a judgment which stated that a Muslim woman must remove her full-face veil whilst giving evidence during her trial but for the remainder of the case she may wear her niqab.

In this 36 page judgment, Judge Peter Murphy was clear that he was tackling all face-covering and not head covering, stating that this ruling was not limited to defendants with or without religious beliefs nor was it dependant upon the gender. From this it is to be assumed that evidence could not be given whilst wearing a motorbike helmet with the visor down. The judgment also suggested at sincerity of the wearing of the face-covering should be assumed unless there was evidence to suggest otherwise and that the judgment was specific to defendants facing trial in the crown court.

So, was this the right decision to be made?

Headdresses are worn by Muslim women and girls in accordance with the hijab with the aim to hide what men find sexually attractive although a niqab or burqa; which cover most of the face leaving only a slit for the eyes are not required to be worn. However, for some Muslim women the removal of this veil could be against their religious following especially with the potential to be seen by other men.

On the opposing side there could be an identification issue if the defendant’s face is covered; something that did not prevail in the case as the defendant was allegedly wearing the niqab when the offence was committed, however this could become relevant in other cases. Most importantly evidence given by a defendant is very difficult for a jury to evaluate when the person giving it cannot be seen as their reactions and demeanour are essential in helping a jury deliberate upon the evidence presented.

Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes the freedom to change a religion or belief, and to manifest a religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”

Judge Murphy ruled that while Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights is important the restrictions it places on the individual’s rights are necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others, which includes claimants, victims, witnesses and jurors therefore a balance is required.

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