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.

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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.