Why everyone should wear a veil in court

Humans are terrible lie detectors, but we believe ourselves to be practically flawless. That's why banning the veil in court will never lead to better justice.

This week, a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court in London ruled that a Muslim woman can wear the veil, or niqab, in court, but must remove it when giving evidence.

Some immediately said he should have gone further. For instance, the redoubtable Janice Turner of The Times declared on Twitter that the decision makes “an awful precedent”. She argued that being able to observe a person is important when coming to a decision about their guilt. Janice’s views echoed those of the National Secular Society, which told the BBC it’s “vital” that defendants’ faces are visible “at all times”. In other words, veils should be banned from court, tout court.

I agree that the judge’s compromise is unsatisfactory, and I too would like to go further, but in the opposite direction. I think we’d have a better justice system if all witnesses were made to wear a veil.

In the course of researching my book Born Liars, I spent a lot of time reading the academic literature on lie detection, and talking to scientists who study interrogation techniques. I found a surprising scientific consensus: people are less good than they think they are at judging a person’s truthfulness by observing their demeanour. Humans, it turns out, make erratic lie detectors. But here’s the funny thing: we think we’re great at it.

In a landmark study from 2006, the researchers Charles Bond and Bella DePaulo asked 2,520 adults in sixty-three countries how to spot a liar. Most people confidently explained that liars stutter, squirm and avert their gaze. The same preconception persisted in every culture studied. The trouble is, it’s not accurate. As a result, it leads us astray.

A person telling a lie may look their interlocutor in the eye. They may well – especially if they have had time to prepare – be just as fluent, if not more so, than a truth-teller. Conversely, some people, even when they’re telling the truth, appear shifty and uncomfortable, especially under pressure.

We’ve all encountered successful liars. So why, Shakespeare’s warning notwithstanding, do we continue to believe that we can “find the mind’s construction in the face”? Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, points to a fundamental imbalance in the way people relate to each other.

When you physically encounter me, there are two things that are more prominent in your mind than in mine: my face and your thoughts. As a result you give too much credence to what you think you can tell from my face, while remaining confident that your own thoughts are entirely private.

Studies have found that people consistently over-estimate how much they can learn about others in job interviews, while at the same time believing that others can get only an unreliable glimpse of what they’re thinking or feeling. The model we work with is something like this: I am never quite what I seem; you are an open book. Pronin calls it “the illusion of asymmetric insight”.

It’s an illusion that sits at the heart of our justice system. The lawyer and fraud specialist Robert Hunter, whom I interviewed for the book, calls it “the demeanour assumption”: this assumption that we can read others’ faces like a book. Hunter believes that the demeanour assumption regularly misleads interrogators, judges and juries.

When a jury is trying to come to a decision, they need to take all sorts of information into account. What a witness is doing with their face while talking is, to a large extent, noise in the data, a hindrance to the search for truth. In their study, Bond and DePaulo found that “people are more accurate in judging audible than visible lies”.

Critics of the veil like to refer to the long traditions of our justice system. But if niqab-wearing women make us pay attention to this flaw in the system for the first time, isn’t that a good thing?

We can stop witnesses wearing veils. Or we can make all witnesses wear them. Either way, let’s not pretend that banning the veil in court will lead to better justice.

Two women wearing the niqab in London. Image: Getty

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

Photo: Getty Images
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Responding to George Osborne's tax credit U-turn should have been Labour's victory lap

He changed the forecast, we changed the weather. But still it rains.

The Labour Party should have rested on its laurels in the Autumn Statement. While Gideon name checked his Tory colleagues for their successful lobbying, he should have been reading out the names of Labour members who changed his position.  I'll let the Tories have the potholes, (even though it was in Labour manifesto) but everything else was us. 

He stopped his assault on tax credits. Not because he woke up in his mansion in a cold sweat, the ghost of Christmas Future at the foot of his bed, ringing out the names of the thousands and thousands of children he would plunge into poverty. Nah, it's not that. It's as my sons might say "no way George, you got told!" The constant pressure of the Labour Party and a variety of Lords in a range of shades, supported by that media we are all meant to hate, did for him. It's the thousands of brilliant people who kept the pressure up by emailing politicians constantly that did it. Bravo us, boo nasty George!

As Baron Osborne thanked the Tory male MP for his brilliant idea, to spend the Tampax tax on women's services, I wanted to launch a tampon at his head. Not a used one you understand, I have some boundaries. He should have credited Paula Sheriff, the Labour MP for making this change. He should have credited all the brilliant women's groups, Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Caroline Lucas and even little old me, for our constant, regular and persistent pestering on the subject of funding for refuges and women's services. 

On police cuts, his side should not have cheered him at all. We are now in a position when loud cheers are heard when nothing changes. So happy was his side that he was not cutting it, one can only conclude they really hate all the cutting they do. He should not have taken a ridiculous side swipe at Andy Burnham, but instead he should have credited the years and years of constant campaigning by Jack Dromey. 

I tell you what Georgie boy can take credit for, the many tax increases he chalked up. Increases in council tax to pay for huge deficit in care costs left by his cuts. Increases in the bit of council tax that pays for Police. Even though nothing changed remember. When he says levy or precept it's like when people say I'm curvy when they mean fat. It's a tax. 

He can take credit for making student nurses pay to work for free in the NHS. That's got his little privileged fingers all over it. My babies were both delivered by student midwives. The first time my sons life was saved, and on the second occasion my life was saved. The women who saved us were on placement hours as part of their training, working towards their qualifications. Now those same women, will be paying for the pleasure of working for free and saving lives. Paying to work for free! On reflection throwing a tampon at him is too good, this change makes me want to lob my son's placenta in his face.

Elsewhere in Parliament on Autumn Statement day Jeremy Hunt, capitulated and agreed to negotiate with Student Doctors. Thanks to the brilliant pressure built by junior doctors and in no small part Heidi Alexander. Another disaster averted, thanks to Labour.

I could go on and on with thanks to charities, think tanks, individual constituents and other opposition MPs who should have got the autumn cheers. We did it, we were a great and powerful opposition, we balanced the pain with reality. We made Lord sorry the first Lord of the Treasury and his stormtroopers move from the dark side. We should have got the cheers, but all we got was a black eye, when a little red book smacked us right in the face.