High Court: Perpetual injunction against disaffected former Scientologist is lifted

Four CourtsA “disaffected” former member of the Church of Scientology has successfully had a perpetual injunction against him dissolved in the High Court.

Considering Szabo, Justice Noonan held that the man’s behaviour did not amount to a substantial risk – and that in any event, the plaintiff was not entitled to such equitable relief where she had not come to court with “clean hands”.

Background

The plaintiffs, Zabrina Collins and Michael O’Donnell, are members of the Church of Scientology (CoS). Ms Collins was described as “a senior figure in the CoS in Ireland”. The defendants, Peter Griffiths and John McGhee, are former members of the CoS.

For several years prior to the incident complained of in 2014, a group of people, self-styled as “Anonymous” engaged in protest against CoS on Abbey Street by assembling once or twice a month on the far side of the street from the CoS premises and holding various placards with references to CoS on them. Both plaintiffs attended regularly at the Abbey Street premises and witnessed these protests. The first defendant, Mr Griffiths, described as a disaffected former member of CoS, joined in these protests.

In the incident complained of, the entire event was videoed by Mr Griffiths with a Go Pro camera. In summary, Ms Collins and Mr O’Donnell were engaged in distributing leaflets entitled “The Truth About Drugs” in North Dublin – while so doing, they were followed at very close quarters, sometimes in physical contact, by the defendants who continuously spoke to them in disparaging terms about their beliefs.

Justice Noonan stated that the conduct of the defendants on this occasion, particularly Mr McGhee, was unlawful and constituted intimidation and harassment of the plaintiffs; and Ms Collins was physically assaulted by Mr McGhee, “albeit in a relatively minor way”.

There was no physical contact between Mr Griffiths and either of the plaintiffs, however Justice Noonan was satisfied that he was complicit in what occurred and condoned the actions of Mr McGhee.

Mr Griffiths could have withdrawn from the scene at any time and encouraged Mr McGhee to do likewise but he did not.

This was properly reflected in the award of damages made by the Circuit Court judge where he awarded the plaintiffs €2,000 damages against Mr Griffiths and €3,500 against Mr McGhee.

Perpetual injunction

In December 2014, the plaintiffs applied for an interim injunction against the defendants and the court granted that order and ultimately continued it on an interlocutory basis.

The order granted was described as “very wide ranging in its terms” providing, inter alia, that the defendants and “any person acting in concert with them or any person having notice of the making of this order be restrained from directly or indirectly door stepping, intimidating, approaching, harassing, communicating, watching, videoing, besetting, picketing, committing assault and battery upon the plaintiffs or person with the plaintiffs whether at the plaintiffs’ home, place of work, Church of Scientology… or in any other public place”.

It was also ordered that this was to include “directly or indirectly interfering with the plaintiffs’ access to [and] egress from public and/or private buildings whether the plaintiffs’ home, their place of work, Church of Scientology premises

In the Circuit Court, the judge granted a “perpetual injunction against the defendants in the same terms as the interim injunction”.

Defamation

The within proceedings were heard in tandem with a claim brought by Mr Griffiths against Mr Collins, for defamation, also in the Circuit Court.

Mr Griffiths’ evidence was that part of his normal daily activities included delivering lectures and talks in schools and other institutions – discouraging people from becoming involved in CoS.

In April/May 2013, Mr Griffiths gave a talk to students at St. David’s CBS in Artane. Ms Collins became aware of this, and proceeded to send an email to the headmaster of the school making “the most scurrilous imaginable allegations against Mr Griffiths suggesting, inter alia, that he is a paedophile and a criminal”.

These false allegations resulted in an award of €5,000 in Mr Griffiths’ favour.

High Court

Considering Szabo v. ESAT Digifone Limited [1998] 2 ILRM 102 – the leading authority on the onus of proof to be discharged in granting a perpetual injunction – Justice Noonan stated that the onus rested upon the plaintiff to show a “proven substantial risk of danger”.

Justice Noonan was satisfied that:

  1. The incident occurred on one date only for a period of approximately half an hour, for which the plaintiffs recovered damages
  2. In the three years since the injunction was granted, there was no suggestion that Mr Griffiths had been in breach of it
  3. Mr Griffiths was a truthful witness and by and large a law-abiding citizen; was not the main protagonist, and apologised for the incident in his evidence

As such, the likelihood of repetition of the behaviour complained of was small and did not amount to a substantial risk.

Furthermore, Justice Noonan emphasised that “injunctive relief, perpetual or otherwise, is, of course, an equitable remedy and the person who seeks equity must come to the court with clean hands” (Hubbard v. Vosper [1972] 2 Q.B. 84 considered).

Justice Noonan stated that the conduct of Ms Collins “was a calculated attempt to demonise and discredit Mr Griffiths and presumably thus undermine any criticism, legitimate or otherwise, he may make of CoS. It cannot be viewed as other than a failure to come to court with clean hands”.

Considering all the above, Justice Noonan allowed the appeal and dissolved the injunction relating to Mr Griffiths.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News