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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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.