Apr 6, 2014
Today’s long-awaited decision in R. v. N.S., on whether an Islamic witness ought to be required to remove her niqab veil to testify in court (in a sexual assault case), was a divided one.
As usual, Supreme Advocacy has the goods on the key passages of the decision, perhaps best summarized in the following tweet by Errol Mendes (@3mendous) Peter Sankoff (@petersankoff):
#SCC split on wearing niqab as witness. Majority says "sometimes". Minority says "never". Dissent says "almost always".
McLachlin wrote for the majority, with Deschamps, Fish and Cromwell concurring. Lebel wrote for the minority. And Abella had her own take.
Sheema Khan writes that the court managed to strike "a reasonable balance”:
Rather than an “all” or “none” approach, the court outlined a four-part approach toward answering the question: Should a woman be required to remove her niqab while testifying? This framework will apply on a case-by-case basis, and the result will depend on each case. As the court ruled, no right is absolute. In trying to reconcile the right of religious freedom versus the right to a fair trial, we should consider four questions. Those questions are: Would requiring the witness to remove the niqab while testifying interfere with her religious freedom? Would permitting the witness to wear the niqab while testifying create a serious risk to trial fairness? Is there a way to accommodate both rights and avoid the conflict between them? If not, do the salutary effects of requiring the witness to remove the niqab outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so?
Emmett McFarlane thinks the decision is vintage McLachlin consensus building, but of the kind that produces “confused decisions”:
You or I may believe the niqab is an offensive anachronism, predicated on absurd patriarchal notions. But that’s not the point. The point is the niqab is central to the religious convictions of the individual, to their sense of self and their own dignity. It is precisely why the Court has rejected the idea that it would ever analyze the relative value or sensibility of religious practices in its approach to Charter rights, and instead only focus on the sincerity of the beliefs in question. So long as the decision to wear the niqab is made freely, it ought to be respected from a rights perspective. And in weighing so heavily the risks to a fair trial over not just the latitude given to religious freedom, but also the deleterious and societal effects of providing insufficient protection for them, the majority has handed trial courts a messy confluence of rules likely to do more harm than good.