Canadian court urges case-by-case decisions on face veils

While the appeal court ordered a lower court judge to reconsider his 2008 ruling ordering the woman to reveal her face while testifying, it resisted setting a rule for all cases

October 18, 2010 | Web First
By Leanne Larmondin | Ecumenical News International
Toronto

A Canadian court has urged compromise when considering whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils while testifying in court.

The Court of Appeal in the province of Ontario was considering a Toronto case involving an alleged sexual assault victim, identified only as N.S., who wished to wear her niqab - a face veil with a slit for the eyes - while testifying at a preliminary hearing against two men accused of assaulting her.

While the appeal court ordered a lower court judge to reconsider his 2008 ruling ordering the woman to reveal her face while testifying, it resisted setting a rule for all cases. 

Instead, the three-judge panel noted that, "The effect of wearing the niqab will vary from case to case". In their unanimous decision, the judges laid out a framework for lower court judges to balance the rights of a defendant to see the face of a witness, against the religious freedoms of alleged crime victims. 

Suggestions include using an all-female court or requiring a witness to wear a thinner niqab that better allows the court to "assess her demeanour". The judges added, however, "If, in the specific circumstances, the accused‚s fair trial right can be honoured only by requiring the witness to remove the niqab, the niqab must be removed if the witness is to testify."

A judge presiding at the 2008 preliminary hearing of N.S.'s cousin and uncle, who are accused of assaulting her, ordered her to unveil while testifying, finding her claim that she wears the niqab for religious reasons was "not that strong".

The woman, who had worn a niqab for five years, asked the province's Superior Court to overturn the ruling. That court affirmed the judge's jurisdiction to order the woman to unveil but suggested that similar cases should be decided by judges on an individual basis. 

There are about 580 000 Muslims out of the 33.5 million people in Canada. Few Muslim women wear the niqab.

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