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France top court upholds city ban on lawyers wearing hijabs and other religious symbols in courtrooms

France top court upholds city ban on lawyers wearing hijabs and other religious symbols in courtrooms

4.03.2022 | Ananya Upadhya | National Law U. Delhi, IN MARCH 3, 2022 09:30:50 AM | 1579

France’s Court of Cassation Wednesday upheld a bar association’s ban on barristers wearing religious symbols alongside robes in courtrooms.

In June 2019, the Lille Bar Council notified its members that they would be disallowed from wearing “decorations or signs” displaying “religious, philosophical, community or political affiliation or opinion” along with their robes. Sarah Asmeta, a trainee lawyer, appealed against this notification on grounds that it was contrary to constitutional rights and freedoms, specifically in the workplace. However, the Court of Appeal held this appeal inadmissible stating these rights and freedoms were available only to lawyers and did not extend to trainees.

Asmeta challenged this judgment at the top court stating she had a professional interest in the notification since her status as a trainee meant she was to soon join the bar association. She claimed the European Convention on Human Rights provided a right to remedy to anyone who belonged to a category of persons facing the “risk” of suffering a rights violation.

While the Court of Cassation found no reason to revisit the question of constitutionality, it stated the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were subject to restrictions necessary to protect “public safety, order, health or morals” or to protect others’ freedoms. Stating a common uniform contributed to ensuring the equality of lawyers, and consequently, of litigants, the court held that personal expression needed to be “erased” to ensure a fair trial. Additionally, the court rejected an argument likening such symbols to decorations awarded by the state, which lawyers are allowed to wear along with their robes.

On the issue of procedure, the court decided Asmeta could not claim an “injured professional interest” since she was not yet a lawyer at the time of filing the challenge at the Court of Appeal, especially because she did not have to wear a robe in her role as a trainee. Asmeta’s argument that the apparently neutral move disproportionately disadvantaged Muslim women without a legitimate aim was also dismissed on the same ground.

Asmeta responded with disappointment: “Why does covering my hair stop my client from the right to a free trial? … If [clients] choose me as their lawyer, with my veil, then it is their choice.”

The decision is one of several others in a decade-long effort to curb the public expression of religion in France.

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