Ernest Theophile, 74, and a group of elderly friends have been gathering at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the past 12 years, where they “chat, socialize and play dominoes, cards and backgammon”
A black pensioner has won a court fight to prove his racial equality rights were ignored when he was threatened with jail following complaints that he and his pals play dominoes too loudly.
Ernest Theophile, 74, and a group of elderly friends have been gathering at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the past 12 years.
At the square they “chat, socialize and play dominoes, cards and backgammon”.
Mr Theophile has “visited the area most of his life”, Judge Heather Baucher told Central London County Court, and sees the square almost like a second home.
But Mr Theophile says killjoy council officers are trying to stifle his right to enjoy the freedom of the square, following complaints from other locals that they are making too much of a racket.
Westminster Council obtained an injunction banning amongst other thing “shouting” and “drinking alcohol” in the square which the pals say discriminates against Caribbean culture around the playing of dominoes.
“If you are West Indian you just cant play dominoes without making a bit of noise,” said Mr Theophile, whose family came to the UK from Dominica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation.
Judge Baucher today handed him victory, ruling that the council did not take its duty to consider the racial equality rights of Mr Theophile and his friends into account when seeking the injunction.
“He is Afro-Caribbean,” said the judge, adding: “He says that access to the square is part of his community ties, where backgammon and dominoes are played and where informal support is given for those experiencing social isolation and issues with their mental health.”
The square became a refuge for the group during the worst of Covid when he and other “lonely” retirees gathered to socialize, play games and console each other.
Westminster Council initially pushed to drive Mr Theophile and others out early last year by securing an injunction banning social gatherings there.
But in March last year a judge tweaked that order – allowing Mr Theophile and his pals back into the square but under the threat of being jailed if they are caught “playing loud amplified music, drinking alcohol and shouting and swearing”.
A Westminster Council spokesperson previously disclosed it had received more than 200 complaints from local residents about anti-social behaviour, with at least one resident claiming they were forced to move home due to the racket in the square.
Council officers claim “anti-social” elements have been gathering in the square and causing mayhem by “playing music, drinking alcohol, shouting, swearing, obstructing the highway and by urinating..”
“The council says that such behavior has caused alarm, harassment, distress, nuisance, the risk of damage to property and negatively impacted on businesses in the area,” explained the judge.
But Mr Theophile says he feels insulted to be associated with such allegations, insisting he is a “dignified” retired gentleman who just likes to spend the time of day with his friends.
He and his lawyers say the order sought by the council is “crazy” and claim it amounts to racial “discrimination”.
The neighbours’ complaints have partly focused on the clatter and roar involved in playing dominoes, which is traditionally a source of passionate frustration and joy in Caribbean culture.
The court order, which carries the threat of a prison stretch if Mr Theophile is ever found in breach “is likely to be indirectly discriminatory,” Mr Theophile’s barrister Tim James-Matthews told Central London County Court.
“Although apparently ‘neutral’ in application, the majority of those whose behavior is constrained by force of the injunction….share a protected characteristic: race,” he added.
Given that effect, he argued that council officers should have carefully considered whether they were “advancing equality” under their public law duties before calling for the drastic ban.
“An injunction restraining the activities of a minority of black people in a public square where there is a theoretical power of arrest and sanction of imprisonment is indirectly discriminatory,” he told Judge Heather Baucher.
And after extensive legal argument from both sides Judge Baucher ruled against Westminster Council, holding that it failed to take full account of its “public sector equality duty” before going to court.
“Mr Theophile says that the proposed injunction is likely to be indirectly discriminatory because the majority of those whose behavior is constrained share the protected characteristic of race and that the claimant’s public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010 was thereby engaged,” she explained.
“In making an application for an injunction…the claimant was required to have regard to the public sector equality duty,” she added.
“It follows the preliminary issue is therefore determined in the defendant’s favour.”
Mr Theophile’s legal team will now try to get his case back into court next month in a bid to have the council’s injunction kicked into touch in light of Judge Baucher’s ruling today.
Explaining earlier how the square became a refuge during Covid, the pensioner said outside court: “We all ended up gathering there because we were kind of lonely.
“There’s nowhere else provided for us, all we wanted was somewhere we could go and sit down and play some dominoes.”