Lord Neuberger on veils in court

1 February 2016
What was claimed

The country’s most senior judge has said that women shouldn’t be able to wear veils in criminal trials.

Our verdict

Correct. The head of the Supreme Court said that witnesses whose evidence is being challenged should have to remove a veil covering their face.

“Women should not be allowed to cover their faces with veils in criminal trials, Britain’s most senior judge has said”

The Times, 30 January 2016

The Times reports that Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, thinks that women who wear veils should be asked to remove them when giving evidence in criminal cases.

The Court confirmed that this is an accurate reflection of the judge’s position. It’s not a challenge to the current approach, as judges can already ask women to remove veils.

Previous reports about this issue haven’t been so accurate. The Times says (£) that these are Lord Neuberger’s “first comments” on the subject—but you’ll find stories from last year about how the same judge supports women appearing in court under a veil.

As we pointed out at the time, Lord Neuberger didn’t say that, and denied that he had. The speech that generated the headlines called for:

“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 women find it inappropriate to appear in public with their face uncovered." 

This didn’t tell us what the President thought about whether veils should be allowed. Now we do know what he thinks:

“I can see serious difficulties with the idea that a witness should have her head covered where evidence is contested. If there is any question of credibility, it should be uncovered.

“The jury system works in this country by contested evidence being decided by witnesses giving evidence before a jury and having credibility weighed—and one factor taken into account is the impression the witness makes and that includes being able to see the witness’s face.”

We checked with the Supreme Court, which confirmed that Lord Neuberger made his comments in the course of an interview with the Times’s legal editor.

He doesn’t suggest that veils should be banned in court altogether. None of this affects people who want to watch a trial—whether involved in it or not—while wearing a veil. The issue is only when the focus of the judge or jury is on a veiled witness.

Lord Neuberger also backed the current “case-by-case system” for deciding on veils, saying that guidance for judges that was promised in 2013 doesn’t seem necessary. Judges have said in the past that they’ll order veils to be removed if they have to.

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