Law: Going 10 rounds with Goliath

When Bonnie Woods called the Church of Scientology a `bogus religion', they sued. But how do you take on a church? By Ian Thomas
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The Independent Culture
MAJOR CITY law firms do not normally act free of charge for individuals receiving state benefits in litigation against large corporations. But the case of Bonnie Woods against Church of Scientology Religious Education College Incorporated (Cosreci), was no ordinary case. Earlier this month, she won a pounds 55,000 pay-out from the Scientologists and an unprecedented public apology.

Bonnie Woods joined the Church of Scientology in America in the early- Seventies. She then moved to England in 1985 with her husband Richard where they set up "Escape", a counselling service for families and friends of Scientologists.

Mrs Woods also openly criticised the organisation and published a leaflet, "What the Scientologists don't tell you", which was highly critical of the organisation. In response, Cosreci, the body responsible for Scientology in the UK, produced a leaflet calling Mrs Woods a "hate campaigner".

Litigation followed. Represented by a solicitor from Chichester and specialist counsel, both acting pro bono (free of charge), Mrs Woods issued libel proceedings against Cosreci and the individuals who handed out the leaflet. Cosreci counterclaimed, based on the "What the Scientologists don't tell you" leaflet. They claimed that Mrs Woods had libellously called Scientology a "bogus religion". Cosreci later issued a similar action in 1996, based on a leaflet distributed by Mrs Woods (among others) promoting a television documentary critical of Scientology.

Mrs Woods' original solicitor stopped acting in 1995. She complained of harassment by Scientologists, allegations that Cosreci vigorously deny. Mrs Woods then acted as a litigant in person. In 1996, she was on the point of capitulation, overwhelmed with the volume of work and the stress of court hearings. However, a friend referred her to Liberty, the human rights organisation. Liberty considered that the case raised issues of freedom of speech and, as a member of Liberty's pro bono panel, Allen & Overy took up the baton.

This decision was the start of a massive undertaking. The "bogus religion" question involved an extensive investigation. Ultimately, though, a single category of documents had the most dramatic impact on the case. In America, Bonnie Woods had completed a number of Scientology's secret "upper level" courses. She felt that these documents were of crucial importance and applied for a court order that Cosreci should produce them.

The application was fiercely resisted. The Church of Scientology zealously protects the contents of these courses. According to Hubbard, Scientologists can suffer serious harm if they read them before they have reached the right spiritual level. The Church of Scientology has brought successful copyright actions around the world against those who have published the materials without authority.

Despite this opposition, the court believed that production of the documents was necessary. However, rather than face this or a potentially lengthy appeal, Cosreci discontinued their two claims against Mrs Woods last summer.

The absence of the "bogus religion" question slashed the time estimate for the trial. However, the litigation was far from over. We had two hearings in the Court of Appeal. Both Allen & Overy and counsel for Mrs Woods entered into "no win no fee" agreements, following changes in the law and approval from professional bodies.

We explored difficult and uncertain areas of defamation and general law. The court looked at the rarely used defamation defence of qualified privilege arising from "reply to attack". Can a defamatory reply be privileged (and therefore immune from suit unless it is malicious), even if the original attack is true? Arguably yes, said the court. In claims for aggravated damages against joint tortfeasors, must the level of damages be fixed by reference to the conduct of the least blameworthy? Arguably not, said the Court of Appeal.

In the end, the points of law were of secondary importance to Mrs Woods. Of more relevance to her were the damages and the public apology that she received from Cosreci to end her six-year ordeal.

Ian Thomas is a senior associate at Allen & Overy