Black pensioner, 73, calls court order over noisy board games 'racist'

Black pensioner, 73, says court order threatening him and friends with jail for playing dominoes and backgammon too loudly is racist after 200 noise complaints from neighbours

  • Ernest Theophile has been meeting friends in Maida Hill Market Square for years
  • But council intervened after a string of noise complaints from frustrated locals 
  • He is now fighting a court order that he claims amounts to racial ‘discrimination’ 

Ernest Theophile, 73, outside the Royal Courts of Justice 

A black pensioner says a court order threatening him and his friends with jail for playing board games too loudly following 200 noise complaints from neighbours is ‘racist’.

Ernest Theophile, 73, and a group of elderly companions have been gathering at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the past 12 years, where they ‘chat, socialise and play dominoes, cards and backgammon’.

The square became a special haven for the group during the worst of Covid when he and other ‘lonely’ retirees gathered there to socialise, play games and console each other.

But Mr Theophile says council officers are trying to stop him and his friends enjoying themselves in the square, following complaints from other locals that they are making too much of a racket.

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 the order – allowing Mr Theophile and his friends 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 spokesman previously disclosed it had received over 200 complaints from local residents over anti-social behaviour, with at least one resident claiming they were forced to move home due to the noise in the square.

Mr Theophile and his lawyers are now fighting the order, calling it ‘crazy’ and claiming it amounts to racial ‘discrimination’.

The neighbours’ complaints have focused on the clatter and roar involved in playing dominoes, which is traditionally a source of passionate frustration and joy in Caribbean culture.

‘If you are West Indian you just can’t play dominoes without making a bit of noise,’ explained Mr Theophile, whose family came to the UK from Dominica in the 1950s as part of the Windrush generation.

Mr Theophile and his friends have been gathering at Maida Hill Market Square in north London for the past 12 years, where they ‘chat, socialise and play dominoes, cards and backgammon’

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 behaviour 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 injunction.

‘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.

Explaining 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.’

And hotly disputing any suggestions of anti-social behaviour, his barrister told the judge: ‘Mr Theophile is 73 and has regularly attended Maida Hill Market for the last 12 years.

‘His purpose for doing so include establishing and developing social ties within his community, to engage in social activities – including the playing of dominoes and backgammon – to share and participate in West Indian culture and tradition, and to provide informal support for those experiencing social isolation and mental ill-health.’

The case has now reached court as lawyers on both sides dispute the fairness of the injunction, and whether equality issues should have been fully considered by Westminster Council before they went to court.

The council insist that seeking the court ban was a reasonable response in light of widespread disruption at the square in the past.

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

The disruption included public drinking, drug dealing and abuse – as well as urination in the street, it was claimed.

Judge Baucher has now reserved her decision on the question of whether the council properly assessed its Equality Act duties.

After the hearing Anne McMurdie, solicitor for Mr Theophile, accepted that, while at the moment he can go to the square, the order has a ‘dampening effect’ on his freedom.

‘He is permitted to go to the square to play dominoes if he wants to, but he would have to do it very quietly and in a way that’s completely contrary to how he’s used to playing the game,’ she said.

‘It’s like saying you can play football but you can’t shout or swear or get cross.

‘It’s really curtailing how they have always socialised together, that’s the nub of it. So they can play dominoes so long as they don’t do it in the traditional way, and they can’t have a beer with it either.

‘Bear in mind that there’s also a power of arrest and a risk of imprisonment involved – the idea that you could be arrested for shouting at a friend because you thought they cheated is crazy.’ 

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