Beggars not welcome in church

WRITS

Westminster firm Winckworth & Pemberton has struck a serious blow for the church authorities which are plagued by beggars.

The problem is one facing many churches, which find their Christian charity stretched to its limit. However, the outcome of High Court moves by two Essex churches leaves no doubt that the law will back churches if they decide to get tough.

On 12 October this year the Parochial Church Council of the United Benefice of Saffron Walden with Wendens Anbo and Littlebury, the Parochial Church Council of Stansted Mountfichet, and a group of named church people, including clergy, went to the High Court. The case, masterminded by Winckworths' solicitor Tony Robertson, resulted in an order being granted banning a beggar from the churches except for the purpose of attending services.

Robertson believes the case provides important civil court backing for church authorities frustrated at finding the police or social services powerless to curb the activities beggars such as Michael Walker.

Walker stands accused of theft, fraud, being abusive and urinating in one of the churchyards in Essex.

The case shows how quickly a civil court remedy can be obtained when the necessity arises, points out Robertson.

Less than a fortnight passed between the issue of a writ against Walker in the Queen's Bench Division and the inter- partes chambers hearing which led to injunctions being issued by deputy judge Heather Hallett QC.

Walker's behaviour, which sparked the action, spanned a 10-year period. But Robertson says: "When things finally reached the stage where the other cheek could no longer be turned things moved very fast."

Instructions were taken about one month prior to the hearing – the writ was issued on 4 October – and documents were rapidly served on Walker.

Part of the churches' claim was aimed at preventing Walker from committing riotous, violent or indecent activities and was brought under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.

He was accused of breaking into the churches, stealing from collection boxes, charging visitors for admission, begging, verbally abusing visitors and members of the churches and urinating in church grounds.

Robertson says there are a number of reasons why the High Court is the best forum for actions like this.

Police and social services have limited powers to deal with those causing a nuisance whereas the civil courts have powers to make wide ranging orders and to punish for contempt if orders are not obeyed.

Speed is another reason to turn to the High Court. The courts can and do move quickly and there is more chance of a rapid result from the High Court than a county court.

The High Court location also emphasises the gravity of such cases.

Two counsel were involved in the case. Papers were drafted by David Fosdick and in court Timothy Mould argued the case for an injunction.