Respect women’s right to wear veil in court, says Britain’s most senior judge

President of the Supreme Court, David Neuberger (Reuters / Luke MacGregor)
Women who choose to cover their faces with a veil in court because of their religious beliefs should be shown respect, the UK's most senior judge has said.

Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger said judges must have “an understanding of different cultural and social habits,” as part of their duty to show fairness and impartiality in trials.

“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,” Lord Neuberger said.

“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.”

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Addressing the Criminal Justice Alliance in a speech, ‘Fairness in the courts: the best we can do,’ he warned of potential biases and failures to remain neutral as a result of judges’ privileged backgrounds.

“A white male public school judge presiding in a trial of an unemployed traveler 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.”

“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,” he added.

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Discussing the British legal system, the head of the country’s highest court said lawyers must always remember how “terrifying and intimidating” the process is to members of the public.

He also raised some concerns and whether the British legal system could be improved.

“I sometimes wonder whether our trial procedures really are the best way of getting at the truth,” he said.

“Would you feel that you had given of your best if you had been forced to give evidence in unfamiliar surroundings, with lots of strangers watching in an intimidating court, with lawyers in funny clothes asking questions, often aggressively and trying to catch you out, and with no ability to tell the story as you remember it?”

In 2013, a judge ruled that a Muslim woman was allowed to stand trial wearing a full-face veil, but must remove it to give evidence.

Judge Peter Murphy made the ruling at Blackfriars Crown Court in London. Rebekah Dawson, then 22, had refused to remove her niqab and reveal her face in front of any man. She later admitted witness intimidation and was later jailed for six months after changing her plea to guilty.