SA government considers scrapping religious oaths in court

File image of a Bible in court. Source: AAP

The South Australian government is considering legal reform that would scrap religious-based oaths in courtrooms and replace it with a non-religious witness promise - in a move that would mark a nationwide first.

Legal reform being considered by the South Australian government would remove references to God and Allah from court oaths in favour of a non-religious witness promise.

South Australian Attorney-General John Rau said he would be carefully considering the proposal, which is one of 11 recommendations in a report by the South Australian Law Reform Institute.

The measure, if adopted, would be a nationwide first.

The state government had asked the South Australian Law Reform Institute to investigate current courtroom and tribunal practices for witness oaths and affirmations, and make suggestions for improvement.

A meaningful oath?

The Institute's Director and Dean of the Adelaide Law School, Professor John Williams said swearing on the Bible had little meaning for people outside of the Christian faith.

But he warned adopting a uniform affirmation would not stop people lying in courts.

"First of all it should be in legislation, currently it just exists in practice. And then we suggest that a judicial officer or a judge should say to somebody: look you're about to make an important promise to tell the truth. It is significant to this process, do you understand? And then we would ask in very clear words: do you promise to tell the truth in this tribunal?" he said.

The report took into consideration a range of submissions.

"We went out to different communities, faith communities, we went out to multicultural communities and asked them whether or not the current oath or affirmation was serving our needs and also to judicial officers to ask what's been the experiences in court, " Professor Williams said.

"The overwhelming view is that the current language and the current approaches were not working."

Professor Williams said there were various concerns.

"People have to publically say whether they are a believer or not and for some people, even people of faith that's a choice they don't want to be making. They don't believe it's an appropriate thing to do.

“In other words, [it’s] the Church and State issue that this is a secular institution. No-one else in the court is asked to declare what their beliefs are."

The other issue highlighted by the report is that "the language is at a level and a difficulty that may not help people to understand the significance of what they're doing, " added Professor Williams.

Call for reform to be adopted nationally

Greens NSW MP and Spokesperson for Multiculturalism, Dr Mehreen Faruqi welcomed the proposal, saying it should be implemented nationwide.

“This is a great initiative from South Australia and certainly something that should be replicated across the country," Dr Faruqi said.

“Separation of religion and the state should be an essential part of our democratic institutions. In a multicultural society, a single non-religious oath to tell the truth that can be used by everyone should be all that we need, " she added.

Under current South Australian laws, witnesses can take an oath by swearing to tell the truth while holding a copy of the Bible, or they can state the affirmation “I do solemnly and truly affirm”.

 The report makes 11 recommendations, including:

 - A single form of witness promise be adopted for use in South Australia (currently there are multiple options available);

- The promise to tell the truth to be in the form of a question, not a phrase recited by the witness;

- It should be in plain English, with clear warnings about the penalties for not telling the truth;

- The promise should be non-religious in nature; and

- That the legal ritual be prescribed in law.

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