Friday, April 15, 2005

So Help Me God

Evidence is given on oath in court. Witnesses have the choice to affirm or to swear on the holy book of their choice. Court staff are trained to be sensitive in handling holy books, and unless the witness looks to be reasonably educated it is standard practice for the usher to ask him to repeat the oath, which is a sad but realistic reflection on the English education system that manages to give children a minimum of twelve years' compulsory schooling that leaves a fifth of them unable to read competently, or even at all. Inevitably, some people finish off with the "So Help Me God" that they have seen on American TV programmes.

Many judges and magistrates would like to see a single secular oath for everyone, and there is anecdotal evidence that some jurors treat affirmations as being less binding than an oath.

Bringing in religion has its risks, too. A man took the oath on the Koran. He had pleaded guilty to drink driving, but was asking us to find Special Reasons not to disqualify him because he claimed that he was only moving his car to a safer part of the pub car park before walking home. The prosecutor challenged him in cross-examination, saying that the police evidence was that he had driven out of the car park but reversed smartly back when he spotted the police car.

"I would not lie to this court sir. I have taken the oath on the Holy Koran".

The prosecutor put down his file and paused. "Doesn't the Koran also say that you must not drink? And have you not pleaded guilty?".

The defence brief shot to his feet and asked me to put a stop to this inappropriate line of questioning, as he put it. "Your client has introduced the matter of the Koran, and he must now be prepared answer questions on it" was my reply.

Disqualified twelve months.

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