Top Judge Warns Of ‘Unconscious Bias’

Lord Neuberger, the president of the Supreme Court, said recently that the UK’s justice system must be wary of their own ‘unconscious bias’ against those from different backgrounds who are poor, foreign or uneducated. The statements were made in a recent speech entitled ‘Fairness in the courts: the best we can do’ and highlighted the need for UK judges to show respect to everybody equally, requiring them to have an understanding of different cultural and social habits.

Lord Neuberger’s comments also extended to the religious beliefs of each individual and suggested that the UK justice system must show respect to women who choose to cover their faces in court for religious reasons. In an address to the Criminal Justice Alliance last week, he stated, “It is necessary to have some understanding as to how people from different cultural, social, religious or other backgrounds think and behave and how they expect others to behave.

“Well known examples include how some religions consider it inappropriate to take the oath… and how some women find it inappropriate to appear in public with their face uncovered”.

These words of warning come just over a year after a Muslim woman was told that she must remove her full-face veil if she was to give evidence at her trial. The judge in the particular case ruled that she could wear a face covering in court but said that she would have to let the jury see her face first if she gave evidence. Either way, the judge established that it would be ‘quite wrong’ to be prejudiced against a person’s expression of religious faith.

In addition, Lord Neuberger also cautioned UK judges about being influenced by people’s backgrounds. “A white male public school judge presiding in a trial of an unemployed traveller from Eastern Europe accused of assaulting or robbing a white female public school will, I hope, always be unbiased”.

Nevertheless, the crux of Lord Neuberger’s argument rested on the accessibility of the courts to each citizen, and how the courts should be made available to everybody, regardless of background, in order to uphold the rule of law. Using an amusing football analogy, he compared lawyers to professional footballers playing at home on familiar turf, whilst witnesses and jury members were playing for the first time.  The point is for judges to recognise how ‘intimidating’ the court process can be for non-lawyers and how removing this ‘barrier’ can improve accessibility for all.

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