JUDGES must show respect to women who choose to keep their faces covered due to their religious beliefs, the UK’s most senior judge has said.
Lord Neuberger said judges must have “an understanding of different cultural and social habits”, in their bid to show fairness to those involved in trials.
People have to represent themselves or not get justice.Lord Neuberger
Addressing the Criminal Justice Alliance, an umbrella group which campaigns for better justice, the Supreme Court president said: “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.”
Last year, Judge Peter Murphy upheld a ruling allowing Muslim woman Rebekah Dawson to stand trial wearing clothing of her choice, but said she would have to remove her veil, or niqab, if she gave evidence so the jury could see her face.
The 22-year-old waived her right to give evidence in her defence and later admitted witness intimidation, after denying the charge during a seven-day trial.
In a lengthy speech entitled “Fairness in the courts: the best we can do”, 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”.
Speaking of Legal Aid cuts, he said the importance of ensuring all parties involved in a case understood the goings-on in a court was now greater because “people are having to choose between representing themselves or not getting justice at all”.
Accepting that judges tended to come from privileged backgrounds, Lord Neuberger also warned of the dangers of allowing oneself to be swayed by one’s subconscious. “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,” he said.
“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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