Lawyer protests wearing of veil during testimony
A defence lawyer has objected to a Muslim woman wearing the burqa or veil when she gives evidence in a car theft trial.
At a preliminary hearing this week, defence lawyer Colin Amery raised the issue of whether an Afghan woman should be permitted to wear a veil covering her face while testifying.
“I simply argued that in order to properly carry out my job as counsel, it would be necessary to have the kind of contact with a witness which enables careful observation of body language and other features which the wearing of a veil would obscure,” Mr Amery said outside court.
“Judges often tell juries to observe witnesses carefully because it is not just what is said but how it is said that matters.”
Judge Chris Field directed that the matter be left to the trial judge to decide when the case is heard in the Auckland District Court this year.
However, president of the Islamic Federation Association Javed Khan said the woman’s right to wear the veil should not even be an issue.
Mr Khan said it was a religious requirement for Muslim women to cover their heads.
While covering the entire face was more of a personal choice, it was quite common practice with women from the Middle East, especially Afghanistan.
Mr Khan said witnesses often gave evidence from behind a screen or in written handup form, so giving it from behind a veil should not be a problem either.
The chairman of the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, Michael Bott, said the woman and the accused had certain rights which needed to be taken into account.
Under section 20 of the Bill of Rights Act the woman had the freedom to practise her religion and beliefs, including wearing a veil over her face.
However, the accused also had the right to a fair trial and there was a possibility that could be jeopardised if the lawyer and jury could not see the woman’s expressions while she gave evidence.
Mr Bott said it would be a fine line balancing the two rights.
If the veil became too much of a problem for the jury then the judge should call for submissions on the matter.
Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres said he had never heard of such an issue being raised in a court of law before but it was a matter best left for the judge to rule on.
Mr Amery said there was no legal precedent in New Zealand that he was aware of but he intended to make a legal challenge when the woman appeared in the witness box later this year.