Martin Bentham
Published: 16 September 2013

A Muslim woman from London who had demanded the right to stand trial wearing a niqab was today told that she must remove it to give evidence to stop a “coach and horses” being driven through British justice.

Judge Peter Murphy told Blackfriars Crown Court that it was “essential” for jurors to be able to see the woman’s reactions as she gave evidence and responded to cross-examination.

He said it would also be “unfair” to other participants in the case for the woman to remain veiled and that the courts could not apply the law differently on the basis of a person’s religion.

But in a ruling which is likely to attract criticism and intense public debate, the judge also ruled that the woman would be permitted to wear her niqab during other parts of the trial.

Today’s judgment follows an appearance in court last week by the 22-year-old woman, from Hackney, who is charged with intimidating a witness in Finsbury Park in June.

She entered a not guilty plea last week after being allowed to appear in court while wearing a niqab after a temporary compromise under which the judge agreed that her identity could be confirmed before the hearing by a police officer.

At today’s hearing, however, Judge Murphy said that the principles of open justice and the rule of law meant that the woman, who was wearing her niqab again today, would have to remove it to give evidence when her trial begins.

He said he had “no doubt” about the “sincerity” of her religious belief and her conviction that she should not display her face in public, even though she had only begun wearing a niqab last year.

But he said that although the courts had a “proud record” of defending religious freedom, which was protected under common law and the European Convention on Human Rights, allowing the woman to wear a niqab would hinder “communication” and “shield” her from parts of the trial process.

He added that the ability of jurors to see the defendant was of “cardinal importance” and that to grant an exemption on grounds of religious belief would effectively “immunise” her from the impact of cross-examination by prosecution lawyers.

The judge said that to be “proportionate” he would allow the woman, who is not being named for legal reasons, to remain in her niqab during the remainder of her trial.

She would also be allowed to give evidence from behind a screen or via videolink to prevent her being viewed by members of the public present at the hearing.

Judge Murphy said he hoped that Parliament or a higher court – such as the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court – would now review the issue and provide a clear statement of the law that could guide judges in future cases.

Today’s ruling follows a hearing last week at which Judge Murphy allowed the woman to enter the dock in a niqab after she had been identified in a private room by a female police officer.

The Met constable, who was present when the defendant was photographed following her arrest in June, then swore on oath that it was the same woman under the niqab in the dock. The only part of her face that was visible was a narrow horizontal stripe showing her eyes.

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