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Wigs and veils up for discussion by Lady Hale and Lord Neuberger in Supreme Court briefing to mark a new legal year

Deputy president of the Supreme Court Lady Hale today (2 October) advocated a new approach to attracting youths from diverse backgrounds starting first with the elimination of barristers wigs, in a meeting otherwise dominated by the issue of full-face veils in court.

In a briefing held together with Lord Neuberger to reflect on his first year as president, the outspoken deputy addressed a series of questions over the use of the niqab in court, which dominated headlines in September after Judge Peter Murphy found that defendant Rebekah Dawson must remove her veil when giving evidence.

Judge Murphy ruled that the 22-year old Muslim woman would be able to keep her veil on during the trial and could give evidence from behind a screen, although he must be able to see her face.

The case, heard in Blackfriars Crown Court, has led to heated debate on both sides, with both the former chief justice Lord Woolf and former Labour justice secretary Jack Straw suggesting that the issue needs to be the subject of national guidance.

Judge Murphy’s tempered ruling met with some accord from Lady Hale (pictured), who said today: ‘There are ways in which one can mitigate the difficulty of asking somebody to remove a veil, such as screening from everybody other than those who actually need to see the face.’

However, particularly in light of the fact that the issue may be the subject of further appeal, Lady Hale would not be drawn into committing to one side of the argument or the other, commenting: ‘Almost all practical questions like that depend upon what the facts are. There clearly are situations in which we have traditionally believed it important to be able to see somebody’s facial expressions, principally when giving evidence, but there are others when recognition is important and the like, and possibly when two-way communication is important. Therefore, if we think that these matters are important we have to ask ourselves whether the wearing of a face veil is consistent with that and balance the two things.’

Lord Neuberger added: ‘I entirely agree with that. The trouble is that by saying it depends on the particular circumstances your next question may involve giving us particular circumstances, and our problem then is that those are the very types of case that may come to us to be decided. I think what Lady Hale has said presents the parameters of the problem absolutely rightly. Each case very much depends on the precise facts and balancing, but justice has to be done according to the law.’

However, when the issue of removing veils was compared by one briefing attendee to the fact that UK barristers and judges still cling to the traditional uniform of robes and grey wigs in court, Lady Hale was more forthcoming, commenting: ‘I have not made any secret of the fact that I am not in favour of barristers and judges wearing wigs. My main objection is that they are men’s wigs.

‘I think we now recognise that a diversity of appearance is just as important as a diversity of background and experience. That happens to be my personal view. It is, of course, not shared by many people, including, I am sure, by many women barristers.’