Anyone wanting a document witnessed in New South Wales must remove face coverings such as burqas or niqabs
The new law on face coverings follows a case in which a woman’s jail sentence was overturned because of doubts about her identity. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters
Muslim women in the Australian state of New South Wales will be required to show their faces when they have documents witnessed under new identity check laws.
The laws – due to come into force on 30 April – will apply to statutory declarations and affidavits and cover anything that conceals a person’s face, including motorcycle helmets, masks, veils, burqas or niqabs.
It follows a court case in which a woman wearing a burqa had a six-month jail sentence overturned on appeal last year because of doubts about her identity.
Carnita Matthews, 47, was originally convicted of falsely accusing a police officer of trying to remove her burqa during a random breath test. The conviction was overturned on appeal because the woman who made the complaint was wearing a burqa, making it impossible to tell whether it was Matthews.
Traffic laws were subsequently changed, and drivers who refuse to show their faces face being jailed for up to a year and fined $5,000 (£3,400).
The NSW state attorney general, Greg Smith, said the Matthews case highlighted the need for the rules to be clarified. “If a person refuses to show their face, an authorised witness must decline to sign their documents unless the person has a legitimate medical reason for keeping their face covered,” he added.
“In some situations, it means individuals wearing full or partial face-covering garments will need to reveal their faces for the purposes of identification.”
Witnesses who do not comply with the new requirements face a fine of $220. Smith said the more comprehensive identity checks would minimise the risk of fraud.
Aziza Abdel-Halim, the president of the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia, said the change would not have an impact on the community.
“The majority will accept it,” she said, adding that it is a requirement in many Muslim countries. “Some will reject it, but they won’t have a leg to stand on because the law is the law.”
Abdel-Halim said it was no different to being required to confirm your identity by showing your face if you are sitting an exam.
David Bernie, the vice-president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, agreed, saying: “I really don’t think this should cause any problems as long as a woman has the opportunity for a female JP to witness documents, and there are plenty of female JPs and solicitors in NSW.”
There are around 90,000 justices of the peace in NSW who provide the service on a voluntary basis.