16 SEPTEMBER 2013
A Muslim woman will be allowed to stand trial while wearing a full-face veil but must remove it while giving evidence, a judge has ruled.
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The 22-year-old from London, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said it is against her religious beliefs to show her face in public.
But Judge Peter Murphy, sitting at London's Blackfriars Crown Court, ruled that it was "crucial" for jurors to be able to see the defendant's face when giving evidence.
The woman, referred to in court as "D", entered a not guilty plea to a charge of intimidation last week while wearing a niqab after the judge backed down from a previous decision that she would have to show her face to be properly identified.
Presenting his final ruling, he said there was a "pressing need" to address the issue of whether women involved in proceedings should be allowed to wear veils in court.
He said he "expresses the hope that Parliament or a higher court will provide a definite answer" to the issue soon, adding: "The niqab has become the elephant in the court room."
"Given the ever-increasing diversity of society in England and Wales, this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently and to which an answer must be provided," he said.
His judgment came as Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne called for a national debate on whether the state should step in to prevent young women having the veil imposed upon them. Mr Browne said he was "instinctively uneasy" about restricting religious freedoms, but he added there may be a case to act to protect girls who were too young to decide for themselves whether they wished to wear the veil or not.
Liberty, which campaigns on civil liberties and human rights issues, said it welcomed the ruling. Director Shami Chakrabarti said: "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."
But Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, condemned the decision. He 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 of Judicial Complaints and also be asking senior legal officers to make visibility throughout court hearings mandatory, and not subject to judges' discretion."