Judge Peter Murphy of Blackfriars Crown Court ruled in September that D, a Muslim defendant charged with a single count of witness intimidation, would not be allowed to give evidence in court without first removing her face veil.

He permitted her evidence to be given behind a screen, or by live TV link, shielded from public view, but not from judge, jury and counsel. No drawing or other image of any kind of the defendant with her face uncovered would be allowed in court, nor disseminated or published outside.

D is otherwise free to wear the niqab – a full-face veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes – during the trial, but must comply with all court directions to enable her to be properly identified at any stage of the proceedings, he ruled.

The defendant had earlier declined to comply with the court’s request that she reveal her face for the purpose of identification. The judge adjourned the plea and case management hearing to consider the issue on a broader basis, having heard skeleton arguments and expert evidence.

In a 36-page ruling, Judge Murphy considered what, in the absence of clear judicial guidance, would be the least restrictive approach to enable the court to “conduct the proceedings fairly and effectively in the interests of all parties”. “The relegation of such important issues to the sphere of ‘judge craft’ or ‘general guidance’ has resulted in widespread judicial anxiety and uncertainty and to a reluctance to address the issue,” he said.

“These are not trivial or superficial invasions of the procedure of the adversarial trial,” he continued. “At best, they require a compromise of the quality of criminal justice delivered by the trial process. At worst, they go to its very essence, and they may render it altogether impotent to deliver a fair and just outcome.” Conscious of the “place of the Crown Court in the hierarchy of legal authority”, he called for Parliament or a higher court to review this question “sooner rather than later and provide a definitive statement of the law to trial judges”.

In a statement, the Muslim Council of Britain said that the judge had made the right decision in this case: “We should accept that reasonable accommodation has been made to respect her religious rights.” Talat Ahmed, chair of its Social and Family Affairs Committee, said that Islamic practices allow for certain exceptions “in the spirit of being reasonable”. There had been calls for a national debate for over ten years, she said, but it was time for a “sensible, non-hysterical conversation” led by Muslim women on the issue of how those “who wear such attire can make a positive contribution to society”. The ruling followed just a few days after a ban on the niqab at Birmingham Metropolitan College was overturned.