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The former justice secretary Ken Clarke has rekindled the debate about wearing veils in court by claiming that a proper trial is impossible if a defendant is “in a kind of bag”.

Clarke, who is now minister without portfolio, said a judge and jury had to see a defendant’s full face to assess whether they were telling the truth.

“I don’t think a witness should be allowed to give evidence from behind a veil,” Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.

Clarke, a barrister and the coalition’s justice secretary until last year, said body language and facial expression were key factors in assessing the credibility of witnesses and defendants.

“I can’t see how on earth a judge and a jury can really appraise evidence when you are facing somebody who is cloaked and is completely invisible to you … It’s almost impossible to have a proper trial if one of the persons [involved] is in a kind of bag.”

Clarke said his remarks were “not based on any trace of Islamophobia”. He added: “I do think it’s a most peculiar costume to adopt in the 21st century, but that’s not for me to decide.”

He said people should be allowed to “wear what the devil they like in public”, but giving evidence in court required the full face to be visible at least to the judge and jury, but not necessarily to others.

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