74-year-old African-American retiree prevented from playing dominoes wins fight against Westminster Council injunction

Ernest Theophile (pictured), 74, took Westminster Council to court after it banned him and his friends from playing dominoes “loudly” in a public square. He now hopes the court order will be overturned after a judge ruled the council failed to take into account his racial equality rights.

A black pensioner who was banned from playing ‘loud’ dominoes with his friends in a public square has won a legal battle against the council.

Ernest Theophile, 74, and a group of older friends have been meeting at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the past 12 years, where they “chat, socialize and play dominoes, cards and backgammon”.

But Westminster Council tried to oust Theophile and others early last year by obtaining an injunction banning social gatherings there, after it said it received “over 200 complaints” about noise being made.

In March last year, a judge modified the order, allowing Theophile and his friends to return to the square, but under threat of jail if they were caught “playing loud amplified music, drinking alcohol and yelling and cursing”.

Theophile, whose family came from the Dominican Republic as part of the Windrush Generation in the 1950s, took the matter to Central County Court in London, claiming the injunction was “racist” because it discriminated against her Caribbean culture.

Anne McMurdie, Mr Theophile’s lawyer, had said the order was like asking people to play football ‘but you can’t yell, curse or get angry’.

Justice Baucher ruled against Westminster Council on Friday, holding that it failed to take fully into account its “duty of equality in the public sector” by failing to consider Mr Theophile’s racial equality rights.

The council had argued that it was not required to consider equality issues when seeking an injunction, which was rejected by the judge.

Mr Theophile’s legal team will now try to get his case back in court next month in a bid to overturn the council’s injunction.

Theophile has “visited the area most of her life,” Judge Heather Baucher told the court, seeing the square almost like a second home.

Westminster Council obtained an injunction banning, among other things, ‘yelling’ and ‘drinking alcohol’ in the square which, according to the group, discriminates against Caribbean culture around the game of dominoes.

“If you’re from the West Indies, you can’t play dominoes without making a bit of noise,” Mr. Theophile explained.

Judge Baucher awarded him victory today, ruling that the council failed to take into account its duty to consider the racial equality rights of Mr. Theophile and his friends in seeking the injunction.

“He is Afro-Caribbean,” said the judge, adding: “He says that access to the square is part of his community bond, where backgammon and dominoes are played, and where informal support is provided to those who experience social isolation and problems of your mental health.

The square became a haven for the group during the worst of Covid as he and other ‘lonely’ retirees gathered to socialise, play and comfort each other.

Mr Theophile (far left) and his friends have been meeting at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the last 12 years, where

Mr Theophile (far left) and his friends have been meeting at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the past 12 years, where they “talk, socialize and play dominoes, cards and backgammon”.

Westminster Council initially pushed to expel Theophile and others early last year by obtaining a court order banning social gatherings there.

But in March last year, a judge changed that order, allowing Theophile and his friends to return to the square, but under the threat of jail if they were caught “playing loud amplified music, drinking alcohol and yelling and cursing”.

A spokesman for Westminster Council previously revealed that it had received more than 200 complaints from local residents of anti-social behaviour, with at least one resident claiming they were forced to move because of the racket in the square.

Council officials claim that ‘anti-social’ elements have been gathering in the square and causing chaos by ‘playing music, drinking alcohol, yelling, cursing, blocking the road and urinating…’

“The council says that such behavior has caused alarm, harassment, distress, annoyance, the risk of property damage and has negatively impacted businesses in the area,” the judge explained.

But Theophile says he is insulted to be associated with such accusations, insisting that he is a ‘dignified’ retired gentleman who simply likes to spend the day with his friends.

He and his lawyers call the council’s requested order “insane” and say it amounts to racial “discrimination.”

Complaints from neighbors have focused in part on the noise and din involved in playing dominoes, which is traditionally a source of frustration and passionate joy in Caribbean culture.

The injunction, which carries the threat of a prison term if Theophile is ever found to be in breach, “is likely to be indirectly discriminatory”, Theophile’s lawyer Tim James-Matthews told the Central London County Court.

‘Although apparently ‘neutral’ in application, most of those whose behavior is limited by the force of the order*. they share a protected characteristic: race,’ she added.

Given that effect, he argued that council officials should have carefully considered whether they were “promoting equality” under their public law duties before calling for the drastic ban.

“A court order that restricts the activities of a minority of black people in a public square where there is a theoretical power of arrest and penalty of imprisonment is indirectly discriminatory,” Judge Heather Baucher told Judge.

And after extensive legal argument from both sides, Justice Baucher ruled against Westminster Council, arguing that it did not fully take into account its ‘duty of equality in the public sector’ before going to court.

“Mr Theophile says that the proposed injunction is likely to be indirectly discriminatory because most of those whose behavior is restricted share the protected characteristic of race and that the plaintiff’s public sector duty of equality under the Equality Act of 2010 was thus compromised,” he explained.

Mr Theophile says council officers are trying to prevent him and his friends from enjoying themselves in the square (pictured)

Mr Theophile says council officers are trying to prevent him and his friends from enjoying themselves in the square (pictured)

“When filing a request for precautionary measure… the plaintiff was required to take into account the duty of equality of the public sector,” it added.

“It follows that the preliminary question is determined in favor of the defendant.”

Mr Theophile’s legal team will now seek to get his case back in court next month in a bid to get the council’s injunction into effect in light of today’s Judge Baucher ruling.

Explaining earlier how the square became a haven during Covid, the retiree said off the pitch: ‘We all ended up meeting there because we were a bit lonely.

“There is no other place planned for us, all we wanted was a place where we could go and sit and play dominoes.”

Earlier, Anne McMurdie, Theophile’s lawyer, said that while he can go to the plaza at this point, the order has a “dampening effect” on his freedom.

“He is allowed to go to the square to play dominoes if he wants to, but he would have to do it quietly and in a way completely contrary to the way he is used to playing,” he said.

It’s like saying you can play football, but you can’t yell, swear or get angry.

“It’s really cutting down on how they’ve always socialized together, that’s the heart of the matter. So they can play dominoes as long as they don’t do it the traditional way, and they can’t have a beer with that either.

“Keep in mind that there is also a power of arrest and a risk of imprisonment involved – the idea that you could be arrested for yelling at a friend because you thought you were cheated on is insane.”

Mr. Theophile said afterwards:

“There is no other place planned for us, all we wanted was a place where we could go and sit and play dominoes.”

And he said after today’s hearing: ‘although the area has changed a lot since I was young, it is a big part of my life. It is part of my culture to spend time playing dominoes and backgammon with other West Indian men my age in the community where I grew up.

“Many people I meet in the square have mental health problems and are socially isolated, but they know that when they come to the square, they can relax by sitting on the benches and chatting with other people. It keeps us healthy.

Reverend Henry Everett, vicar of St Peter’s Church, just a few minutes’ walk from Maida Hill Square, has known the local community for 15 years and commented on the case: “The Westminster district has some of the most underprivileged London.

‘Around Harrow Road, I found there is a staggering level of need in the community in terms of mental health support, so I was shocked when I first heard about the court order, and raised serious concerns about the use of this dangerous , general measure against the entire community.’

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