20 Oct 2013

UK courts look at religion and truth on the stand

8:42 am on 20 October 2013

British magistrates are debating a proposal to end the tradition of swearing on the Bible to tell the truth in their courts.

The plan, which would mean all holy books being removed from courts in England and Wales, is scheduled to debated at a meeting of the Magistrates' Association in Cardiff, the BBC reports.

Instead of swearing on a religious text, witnesses would make a statement in which they would promise "very sincerely" to tell the truth.

Supporters say many people have become indifferent to the Bible but opponents believe it strengthens evidence.

The practice is so old that it is not clear whether it is simply custom or if Parliament would have to change it.

The oath, still sworn by witnesses and defendants as they hold a copy of the Bible, has given the English language one of its most familiar sentences.

"I swear by Almighty God, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

Other faiths can take the oath on their own holy books - Muslims on the Koran, Jews on the Old Testament, for example.

But the Magistrates' Association - which represents three-quarters of the 23,000 magistrates in England and Wales - is to debate a proposal to banish all holy books and oaths to "Almighty God".

The plan has been put forward by a Bristol magistrate, Ian Abrahams, who says many people are no more likely to tell the truth after using it to swear an oath.

He believes what is needed is a greater sense of how seriously lying in court is treated.

Mr Abrahams' alternative oath would include an acknowledgement of the duty to tell the truth.

"I understand that if I fail to do so, I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison."

His plan is opposed by other lawyers, such as Nick Freeman, a solicitor who often represents clients in magistrates' courts.

"The way you stamp out lying under oath is to punish people who do so, not to get rid of the religious oath, " he said.

Church leaders have also spoken out against any change, insisting that Christian belief is still widespread and the Bible has considerable meaning for many who give evidence in court.

If a simple majority of the 200 or so magistrates attending the association's annual general meeting in Cardiff vote to end oaths on holy books the proposal would still need to be confirmed by the 12-member board of trustees before it became the organisation's official policy.