Magistrates debate end to Bible oaths in court

Lady Justice at the Old Bailey People in court would promise "very sincerely" to tell the truth

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Magistrates are to debate whether do away with the swearing of oaths on the Bible and other holy books in courts in England and Wales.

Instead there would be a statement in which people 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.

For centuries, magistrates have dispensed justice in England and Wales, and relied on the Bible to force people to tell them the truth.

Its moral force was unquestioned, placing intense pressure on witnesses to tell the truth.

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".

'Sent to prison'

The plan has been put forward by a Bristol magistrate, Ian Abrahams, who claims 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.

"Evidence must be strengthened if people swear on religious texts," says Mr Freeman.

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

"By changing it you are depriving people with a religious faith of the chance to reinforce their evidence by swearing on their religious text."

Secular promise

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.

They point out that there is already a non-religious "affirmation" that can be sworn by people who choose to do so.

Earlier this year, the Guides decided to strip all religious content from the promise made by its members and replace it with an entirely secular one.

But earlier this month, the Scouts opted to keep their pledge to "do my duty to God" and simply to introduce an alternative version for non-believers.

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.

Oaths sworn on the Bible are old enough for the Magistrates' Association to be unsure whether they are mere custom and practice or whether they were laid down by law.

So, whatever the decision in Cardiff, it might need the approval of Parliament to bring the change about.

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