Freedom to preach upheld in court

A crackdown on street preachers in Yorkshire looks set to leave the county's police with a bloody nose in the light of a recent High Court ruling.

Yorkshire police have been arresting and prosecuting street preachers in the county, but now a High Court judge has held that they have been over-zealous.

Halifax solicitor Malcolm Nowell represents many of the preachers and has become an expert in the area of freedom of speech in public places. He says the police may now face compensation claims of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Nowell, a partner at Finn Gledhill, says many of the preachers from the Faith Ministry have been wrongly held in custody, some for as long as three weeks.

He says that after the High Court ruling by Lord Justice Sedley he will be dusting down old case files to launch compensation claims where it is considered there has been wrongful imprisonment.

Nowell began representing street preachers two-and-a-half-years ago and has acted in around 80 cases.

The recent test case, Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions, was the first to reach the High Court.

The action centred on Alison Redmond-Bate, who was arrested after she refused to stop preaching from the steps of Wakefield Cathedral in October 1997.

Magistrates convicted her of obstructing police in the course of their duty. An appeal to Wakefield Crown Court was dismissed.

In the High Court, however, Lord Justice Sedley allowed an appeal by Redmond-Bate, represented in court by Philip Rouse.

Lord Justice Sedley said that the underlying question was whether it was reasonable for the police officer – who arrested Redmond-Bate as she addressed a crowd of around 100, some of whom were hostile – to consider that her actions were likely to cause a breach of the peace.

On the facts of this case, Lord Justice Sedley said he could see no lawful basis for arrest or conviction. The situation the arresting officer had perceived did not justify him considering that there was going to be a breach of the peace.

He said that free speech included not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it did not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively was not worth having, he said.

He took the view that the Crown Court, in dismissing Redmond-Bate's appeal, had acted illiberally and illogically and Redmond-Bate had been preaching about morality, God and the Bible, which were regularly the topic of church sermons and religious broadcasts.

Nowell says that an immediate effect of the decision is that Crown Court challenges by two others convicted with Redmond-Bate will be re-opened. He says that one of the main themes of Lord Justice Sedley's judgment was that the European Convention on Human Rights and the right of freedom of expression could not be ignored.

This, says Nowell, includes freedom to express lawful matters in a way which other people might take great exception to. The fact that others might react unlawfully does not render the actions of the preachers unlawful.

On the question of compensation, he says many of his clients have, in the past, been arrested and later released without charge. In one incident, Redmond-Bate was locked up for three weeks before being unconditionally bailed.

"I am currently reviewing all of these files. I always knew that what they were doing was questionable but now we've got this decision, consideration will be given to suing the police," he says.

"We could be talking a lot of money. But I now need to examine the cases very carefully and decide how we are going to deal with it."