TORONTO – A female witness can wear a religious veil that covers her face while testifying in court in certain circumstances, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a split decision in a landmark case that pitted religious freedom against an accused person’s right to a fair trial.
The case involved a Muslim woman who sought to wear the veil known as a niqab, which leaves only the eyes exposed, while testifying against her uncle and a cousin whom she claims sexually assaulted her when she was a child.
The woman, who can only be identified as N.S., because of a publication ban, said her religious beliefs dictate that she wears the veil in public or in the presence of men who aren’t “direct” members of her family.
The two accused claimed that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allowed them to confront their accuser and observe her facial expressions as she testifies.
But the woman’s lawyers said facial expressions can be misleading. They said Muslim sexual assault victims will hesitate to go to police if they’re barred from wearing a niqab while testifying in court.
Canada’s version of the bill of rights protects the right to wear the niqab or burqa, but the issue remains controversial. New federal immigration rules, for example, ban face coverings while taking the oath of citizenship.