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Facing the Accuser – allowing for religious nonesense

The issue is when, if ever, a witness who wears a niqab for religious reasons can be required to remove it while testifying. Two sets of Charter rights are potentially engaged — the witness’s freedom of religion and the accused’s fair trial rights, including the right to make full answer and defence. An extreme approach that would always require the witness to remove her niqab while testifying, or one that would never do so, is untenable. The answer lies in a just and proportionate balance between freedom of religion and trial fairness, based on the particular case before the court. A witness who for sincere religious reasons wishes to wear the niqab while testifying in a criminal proceeding will be required to remove it if (a) this is necessary to prevent a serious risk to the fairness of the trial, because reasonably available alternative measures will not prevent the risk; and (b) the salutary effects of requiring her to remove the niqab outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so.

Applying this framework involves answering four questions. First, would requiring the witness to remove the niqab while testifying interfere with her religious freedom? To rely on s. 2(a) of the Charter, N.S. must show that her wish to wear the niqab while testifying is based on a sincere religious belief. The preliminary inquiry judge concluded that N.S.’s beliefs were not sufficiently strong. However, at this stage the focus is on sincerity rather than strength of belief.

The second question is: would permitting the witness to wear the niqab while testifying create a serious risk to trial fairness? There is a deeply rooted presumption in our legal system that seeing a witness’s face is important to a fair trial, by enabling effective cross-examination and credibility assessment. The record before us has not shown this presumption to be unfounded or erroneous. However, whether being unable to see the witness’s face threatens trial fairness in any particular case will depend on the evidence that the witness is to provide. Where evidence is uncontested, credibility assessment and cross-examination are not in issue. Therefore, being unable to see the witness’s face will not impinge on trial fairness. If wearing the niqab poses no serious risk to trial fairness, a witness who wishes to wear it for sincere religious reasons may do so.

If both freedom of religion and trial fairness are engaged on the facts, a third question must be answered: is there a way to accommodate both rights and avoid the conflict between them? The judge must consider whether there are reasonably available alternative measures that would conform to the witness’s religious convictions while still preventing a serious risk to trial fairness.

If no accommodation is possible, then a fourth question must be answered: do the salutary effects of requiring the witness to remove the niqab outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so? Deleterious effects include the harm done by limiting the witness’s sincerely held religious practice. The judge should consider the importance of the religious practice to the witness, the degree of state interference with that practice, and the actual situation in the courtroom – such as the people present and any measures to limit facial exposure. The judge should also consider broader societal harms, such as discouraging niqab-wearing women from reporting offences and participating in the justice system. These deleterious effects must be weighed against the salutary effects of requiring the witness to remove the niqab. Salutary effects include preventing harm to the fair trial interest of the accused and safeguarding the repute of the administration of justice. When assessing potential harm to the accused’s fair trial interest, the judge should consider whether the witness’s evidence is peripheral or central to the case, the extent to which effective cross-examination and credibility assessment of the witness are central to the case, and the nature of the proceedings. Where the liberty of the accused is at stake, the witness’s evidence central and her credibility vital, the possibility of a wrongful conviction must weigh heavily in the balance. The judge must assess all these factors and determine whether the salutary effects of requiring the witness to remove the niqab outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so.

A clear rule that would always, or one that would never, permit a witness to wear the niqab while testifying cannot be sustained. Always permitting a witness to wear the niqab would offer no protection for the accused’s fair trial interest and the state’s interest in maintaining public confidence in the administration of justice. However, never permitting a witness to testify wearing a niqab would not comport with the fundamental premise underlying the Charter that rights should be limited only to the extent that the limits are shown to be justifiable. The need to accommodate and balance sincerely held religious beliefs against other interests is deeply entrenched in Canadian law.

Competing rights claims should be reconciled through accommodation if possible, and if a conflict cannot be avoided, through case-by-case balancing. The Charter, which protects both freedom of religion and trial fairness, demands no less.

Source: R. v. N.S., 2012 SCC 72

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