The right of a Muslim woman to wear a niqab while testifying in a criminal trial may be determined by judges on a “case-by-case assessment”, Ontario’s highest court has ruled. The court also set up a framework for lower courts to apply in balancing a defendant’s rights with a veiled woman’s religious freedoms.
A lower court had ordered a woman to remove her veil, prompting the appeal. The case involved a 32-year-old Muslim woman who alleged that her cousin and uncle had repeatedly sexually abused her when she was a child. A lower court judge ordered the woman to remove her veil during a preliminary inquiry, sparking controversy in the Canadian Muslim community. The Superior Court then quashed that decision following an appeal.
The Ontario Court of Appeal said on Wednesday that Muslim witnesses should have the chance to explain their religious convictions and demonstrate why removing the niqab would offend those beliefs. But they must remove the traditional head covering to testify if the court decides that the veil jeopardises a fair trial.
“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,” the court said.