How far can the law go to judge religious beliefs?

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© Penchan Pumila

The prosecution of a bishop for selling an alleged cure for COVID-19 raises questions about how far the law can go in judging religious beliefs. John binns and Suzanne Gallagher of BCL LLP lawyers investigate

The limits of justiciability

Kingdom Church’s Bishop Climate Wiseman recently appeared before Inner London Crown Court on fraud charges following a trade standards investigation by the Southwark Council. It was reported that he was selling a “Plague protection kit”, make false and misleading claims regarding the effectiveness of the kits for “Treat, prevent, protect or cure” COVID-19[FEMININESil’affairedoitêtrejugéecelasoulèveradesquestionspourlaCoursurlesseuilsàatteindrepourlafraudeetd’autresinfractionslorsquedescroyancesreligieusessontimpliquées

Les tribunaux anglais se sont toujours montrés prudents en ce qui concerne les affaires qui reposent sur des affirmations contestées concernant les pratiques et les doctrines des religions. Il existe un principe de longue date selon lequel les religions doivent être à l’abri de l’ingérence de l’État dans certains domaines. La plupart des autorités judiciaires supérieures traitant de ces questions sont des affaires de droit public et de droit commercial. En 2014, la Cour suprême a donné des indications sur le moment où il serait approprié pour un tribunal de statuer dans une affaire impliquant une secte sikhe qui a fait l’objet d’un appel de la Cour d’appel, division civile. Les poursuites pour fraude impliquant des chefs religieux et des chefs religieux dans le contexte de la pandémie de COVID-19 pourraient-elles constituer un précédent en matière de jurisprudence pénale ?

Vrai ou faux prophète ?

Le Conseil de Southwark a porté des accusations contre Bishop Wiseman en vertu de la Fraud Act 2006 et du Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPUTR). Les rapports judiciaires indiquent qu’il contestera les poursuites. Dans un article de blog qui aurait été écrit et publié par le défendeur, il affirme que le recours était basé sur un passage du chapitre 14 du livre de l’Ancien Testament du Lévitique. L’évêque est cité comme disant “Ceci est basé sur la Bible – je suis chrétien, et la Bible dit qu’il y a un moyen de nous protéger des fléaux.” Il a plaidé non coupable, niant toute malhonnêteté et affirmant sa liberté de pratiquer sa religion.

Malhonnêteté et diligence

Selon les faits particuliers de chaque cas, la vente d’un « remède » au COVID-19 pourrait être considérée comme une fraude par fausse déclaration (article 2, Fraud Act 2006), une pratique commerciale déloyale (contrairement aux CPUTR) et/ou une violation des le Règlement de 2012 sur les médicaments à usage humain (HMR). En vertu de la Loi sur la fraude, le défendeur doit avoir eu l’intention de réaliser un gain, de causer une perte ou d’exposer quelqu’un d’autre à un risque de perte. De plus, le défendeur doit avoir été malhonnête. Lorsque la malhonnêteté est en cause, elle est déterminée par les normes objectives des honnêtes gens ordinaires.

Les infractions aux CPUTR et HMR sont généralement plus faciles à prouver. Le premier est commis si le vendeur enfreint les exigences de « diligence professionnelle » (soit par imprudence, soit sans tenir dûment compte de ces normes), ou dans un certain nombre de cas spécifiques, qui incluent « affirmer faussement qu’un produit est capable de guérir des maladies » . Des infractions en vertu des HMR sont commises (à quelques exceptions près) lorsque le produit n’a pas fait l’objet d’une licence.

Doctrine juridique

Les tribunaux pénaux anglais ont été témoins d’une tentative de poursuites pour fraude impliquant des déclarations de convictions religieuses. En mars 2014, Thomas Phillips a intenté une poursuite privée contre Thomas Monson, président de l’Église de Jésus-Christ des Saints des Derniers Jours (basée à Salt Lake City, États-Unis). M. Phillips a allégué que M. Monson avait commis une infraction en demandant aux membres de l’Église de verser des contributions financières (« la dîme ») sur la base de doctrines théologiques qui étaient, selon lui, fausses ou trompeuses.

Les convocations ont souligné l’affirmation selon laquelle le Livre de Mormon était « traduit des anciennes plaques d’or par Joseph Smith [and] is the most correct book on earth ” as a false or misleading claim. It was argued that a fraud case could be brought because the doctrines in question were statements the veracity of which, it was argued, could be determined by the court.

Following a hearing in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Chief Magistrate DJ Riddle ordered the summons withdrawn, concluding that the complaint of dishonest doctrinal allegations was too tenuous a basis on which to base a fraud prosecution. In his published remarks, he said that questions of the truth or falsity of religious doctrine were not justiciable.

A higher authority

A few months later (in June 2014), the Supreme Court rendered what is today the seminal authority on the justiciability of religious cases in Khaira vs. Shergill. The key question to be determined in this case was whether the ninth claimant was the “third holy saint” and therefore in the designated line of spiritual succession. If it was, it would give it the right to exercise a power conferred by the trust deeds of two religious charities. He could dismiss the appellants as trustees and replace them with his fellow plaintiffs.

The appellants argued that the contested claim to be the successor inevitably rested on questions of religious faith and doctrine. A secular court simply could not rule under the circumstances. The Court of Appeal, Civil Division, had struck out the dispute for this reason.

The Supreme Court overturned this ruling, pointing out that when it comes to private rights, such as property rights or contractual claims, courts cannot avoid ruling on doctrinal issues if it is necessary to decide. the civil claim. Theology can be a legitimate topic of discussion, provided that what the court decides is not a matter of theology but a matter of individual rights and interests. The court could examine religious questions, when there were civil law consequences.

Universal freedoms

Freedom of religion and expression are protected by Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. These are two qualified rights, measures can be taken to limit these two freedoms when “Prescribed by law and… .necessary in a democratic society”. The prevention of crime and the protection of health are legitimate reasons for restricting these freedoms.

The relevance of religious belief to Fraud Act offenses is complicated. Under the Fraud Act, if an accused person honestly believes, on religious grounds, that a remedy is effective (even if it is not), it may mean that he is not dishonest – an essential element of the offense.

Objective standards?

What may prove difficult is the dishonesty test as reconsidered in Ivey v Genting Casinos Ltd, a 2017 Supreme Court case. To determine whether the religious belief was dishonest, the court will first consider the actual state of the individual’s knowledge or beliefs. Second, the court will determine whether his conduct was honest or dishonest by the objective standards of ordinary honest people.

We know how widely the claims about methods of preventing and curing COVID-19 infection were disseminated during the height of the pandemic. What will be interesting to observe is whether defendants in COVID-19 fraud cases will be allowed to present evidence of the reasonableness of these beliefs, or how widespread they were, especially in a religious context. Even under CUPTRs, where dishonesty is not necessary, there can be disputes over the bishop’s state of mind, as well as whether the claims were true or false.

A need for answers

The law is clear on the justiciability of religious beliefs in civil law disputes. The courts have jurisdiction to determine the ownership and control of property held in trust for religious purposes. The position of the law in a criminal context is less clear. What is the relevance of the doctrine of the non-justiciability of religious beliefs when it is said that the defendant’s beliefs are the basis of the fraud? If there is dishonesty and the objective test is met, then should the beliefs be adjudicated?

The decisions of the district courts are never binding, but the words published by Chief Justice DJ Riddle in Philips vs. Monson may carry some weight for those seeking advice. But the law has evolved since then, with clear and confident advice from the Supreme Court in Khaira vs. Shergill, and in Ivey vs. Genting. The authority of the criminal division of the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court, addressing these points on the justiciability of religious beliefs in the context of fraud or other economic crime would be useful to practitioners. The COVID-19 pandemic could provide the perfect antidote to this uncertainty.

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