The Magistrates Association, which represents Magistrates in England and Wales, is to convene this month to discuss proposals of scrapping the ancient tradition of witnesses and defendants giving evidence by swearing on the Bible or other holy book, and instead swearing not to lie.
The Association is to discuss concerns many lay magistrates have that those giving evidence do not take the oath on a holy book seriously. They are to instead consider implementation of a new oath where defendants and witnesses would swear not to lie and would accept they could be jailed if they were to lie.
Ian Abrahams, 62, a Bristol magistrate who has proposed the changes said:
“More and more I see people shrug their shoulders or say “whatever” when asked to take it.
“I’m suggesting we take holy books out of the process. Instead, people will have to show they understand they could be sent to prison if they don’t tell the truth.
“I don’t intend my motion to make any comment on religion. It is certainly not anti-religious.”
Those against the proposals have, however, condemned them and stated they go against the United Kingdoms’ Christian traditions.
Legal expert Lord Carlisle commented:
“It would be unacceptable for the choice to take a religious oath to be removed.”
“For hundreds of years Christian witnesses have been required to hold the Bible and state: ‘I swear by almighty God that I shall tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’”
Currently, those who follow other religions are allowed to swear on their own holy books, for example, Muslims swear on the Koran and Jews on the Old Testament. However, there is currently an option for those of a non-religious persuasion to take a secular oath and they can instead make an affirmation by stating: ‘I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’
Under the proposals put forward, the holy books would be removed and the oath would read:
‘I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and 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.’
If the Magistrates Association’s policy committee approves the changes it will draft proposals to be sent to the Ministry of Justice.
However, church leaders have criticised the proposals. The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, said:
“This could be the slippery slope towards the increasing secularisation of society. Where will it end – with the Coronation Oath?
“The Bible is bound up with the constitution, institutions and history of this country. It is right for people to have a choice of oath, a religious or non-religious one.
“But we are being urged, in the name of tolerance and secularisation, to restrict that choice.”
However, the Ministry of Justice stated they had no immediate plans to change the arrangements.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said:
“We have no plans to change the arrangements for swearing an oath or making an affirmation in court, which have worked well for many years and still do.”