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Why Ken Clarke is wrong on the veil in court

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Picture the scene. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called Ken Clarke in on Sunday morning for an important and urgent job. He is without portfolio but that doesn’t mean is without his uses.

“What ho, prime minister! Not chillaxing today?” asks the jovial former Lord Chancellor.

“No, Ken. There’s important business afoot. We need a little air cover. We want you to dominate the news headlines.”

“I’m the man for the job,” beams Ken, he of the “some rapes are more serious than others” claim.

“Great,” says Cameron. “Now, go out and say something about veils. Any old b– – – will do.”

Ken duly complies. It is not certain why he needs to do this important job. It may be a precursor to justice secretary Chris Grayling coming over all “tough on veils” by announcing a ban on them for witnesses giving evidence in court (though a ban is not really within his immediate powers); or it may be to deflect attention from the embarrassing U-turn on migrant visa bonds.

Whatever it is, Ken rises to the challenge. How did he approach this sensitive subject? By blundering in with his size 10 Hush Puppies. In passing he denigrated the attitude of women who wear veils as archaic and strange: “It’s a most peculiar costume for people to adopt in the 21st century.” Read the rest of this entry

Should veils be banned in court? It’s a question of evidence

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The issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the veil, niqab or burqa when giving evidence in court is a matter of tiny importance yet, seemingly, of great significance. Tiny because there are so few women in Britain wearing full face coverings for religious reasons, of whom even tinier numbers are likely to give evidence in court.

But court scenarios are where the arguments about veiling (whether or not part of a “national debate”, as per Liberal Democrat minister Jeremy Browne) seem to play well for the veil banners since they can tap into Britain’s great traditions of justice and notions of the fair trial. What they don’t tap into is any actual evidence about how or under what circumstances veil wearing might harm a fair trial.

Judge Peter Murphy has considered this issue in the case of R v D(R) (though stressing his view should not be part of the wider debate) and concluded a defendant should give evidence unveiled. (His full decision is here pdf)

There is some evidence (see below) that doesn’t necessarily support the view that juries pick up important clues from watching the facial features of witnesses, but first the context. Read the rest of this entry

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