Wi-Fi in churches – health effects, courts’ jurisdiction and locus standi

To those who followed the House of Lords Motion to Take Note of “the importance of the English parish church” reviewed in our post, the comments of Andrew Lloyd-Webber reported in the Mail on Line will come as no surprise. During the debate, he stated [12 Jun 2014 : Vol 754(6) Col 563]

 “We should have Wi-Fi in churches because you could have an app, and that app could say, This is what this building is about”. Also, any wise church will know that by having an app, it has a captive audience because somebody has used the app. Anything we can do to further the use of churches as the centre of the community, and as a place where people feel they want to come to, has to be good.”

The Mail news item carried roughly the same sentiments (in addition to expressions of the composer’s admiration for Nicole Scherzinger, the former Pussycat Doll now starring in his revival of Cats). More importantly, the article stated that the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, had welcomed the Wi-Fi proposals, indicating that his diocese is already using steeples to provide broadband to remote areas under the WiSpire scheme – a venture in which the Diocese of Norwich has majority ownership – that “aims to provide better broadband services to the whole of the county as opposed to the high populated areas”. Ed Vaizey MP (Didcot and Wantage, Con), the Minister with responsibilities in this area,[1] is reported as saying that he was already rolling out a programme to equip 1,000 public buildings with broadband and was now thinking of ways to extend it to churches, perhaps with a fund they could apply to, adding “We are keen to ensure our heritage is preserved.”

In our December review of consistory court judgments we considered the installation of wireless broadband equipment in the tower of a Grade I listed church, Re All Saints Sharrington [2014] Norwich Cons Ct, Ruth Arlow Ch. We indicated that in view of the technical nature of the petition and potential issues that were raised, the issue would be covered in more detail in a subsequent post which would include a consideration of Re All Saints Postwick [2011] Norwich Cons Ct, Paul Downes Ch, which also concerns the ‘WiSpire’ initiative of the diocese, and the potential health issues in particular.

Telecommunications and the Church

Although many of these issues fall within the ambit of the faculty jurisdiction, it is important to consider other areas such as security and access to the systems that are installed. With regard to the former, there are three main areas of involvement: the use of church towers and spires by commercial companies as part of their telecommunications network; the targeted use of church-based systems to provide Wi-Fi services to the local community, such as WiSpire; and the provision of “open” or “closed” Wi-Fi within a church for official use by clergy and staff, by the congregation, or as a facility for visitors.

Reflecting trends in technology development and attitudes towards the use of church buildings there has been in the issues considered by the ecclesiastical courts: case law in the 1990s concerned the use of church spires for the transmission of mobile phone signals, and in addition to health concerns, addressed issues of the entirely secular applications for such ventures and the possible transmission of pornographic material. More recent judgments have involved the use of the technology by the church and the local community, although a continuing important underlying theme has been the commercial arrangements under which various schemes operate and the role of the PCC as trustees of a charitable organization.

There are a number of features common to most applications of the technology: the likely health effects of the installation and potentially susceptible individuals; aesthetic considerations; the contractual conditions with the service provider; and the system security necessary to prevent access to pornographic and other unsuitable material and to prevent unauthorized system use by hackers. These generally fall within the ambit of the faculty jurisdiction, and in relation to technical I/T issues and health assessments, the consistory courts will take into consideration information submitted by expert witnesses and others form both petitioners and objectors.

Courts’ jurisdiction

As the electromagnetic radiation produced by wireless broadband equipment generally extends beyond the boundaries of the church and its curtilage, it is necessary to consider the competence of the ecclesiastical courts to address these issues and the extent to which anyone within the wider community might be regarded as “interested persons” who might object formally to such an installation. The jurisdiction of the court was raised in Re All Saints Sharrington [2014] Norwich Cons Ct, Ruth Arlow Ch, on which the Chancellor concluded:

17. The proposed works in this case do amount to an alteration of or addition to the fabric of All Saints Church, Sharrington and thus the petitioners are obliged to seek a faculty before undertaking the works … The works fall squarely within the jurisdiction of the Court as codified in the two Measures referred to [section 6(1)(b) Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 and section 11(1) Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991].

She continued [emphasis added]:

18. … Consistory Courts, and indeed the Court of Arches (see e.g. Re Emmanuel Church, Bentley [2006] Fam 39), have been granting permission for similar installations throughout the Church of England for many years. The situation is akin to the repair or installation of floodlighting or bells within a church. In those cases light or sound from the installations may well spill over beyond the churchyard boundary (indeed, in the case of bells, it is presumably intended that it should do so) and thus affect local residents. This does not prevent the Consistory Court from determining those petitions … the Consistory Court will take account of the impact which the proposals are likely to have on those outside the churchyard boundaries in determining whether or not to grant the faculty. The legislation governing the faculty procedure does, of course, have built into it procedures specifically intended to safeguard the position of those with an interest in the proceedings by giving them a full opportunity to have their concerns heard and considered.”

Locus standi

The issue of standing was considered in Re All Saints Sharrington in relation to two of the complainants who lived outside the parish – the parents of the third (adult) complainant, who lived within the parish. The Chancellor indicated that she was not satisfied that family members, even close family members, of those resident in a parish would have sufficient interest in the subject matter of the petition by virtue of that fact alone. However, she was prepared to take account of the representations made within the letters by the parents on the basis that they stand as representations made by or on behalf of their daughter as an interested person, rather than representations made by or on behalf of her parents.

The situation in Re All Saints Postwick [2011] Norwich Cons Ct, Paul Downes Ch was more straightforward: objections were registered by a number of different individuals and also by a charity, ElectroSensitivity UK, an organisation devoted to protecting the interests of those who describe themselves as sufferers of electro-sensitivity. The Chancellor stated [emphasis added]:

“Only one of the persons registering dissent in person was a parishioner of the church, but the remaining objectors could not be said to have any specific interest in the application. Each had submitted a ‘general interest’ in the effect of electro-sensitivity on the population as a whole, but not in relation to any church in the Diocese, including the present one, nor indeed any church in the country in general.

It is likely that there will be further similar applications relating to other churches in this Diocese, and whilst this cannot be said to be in any way a representative action, since not all the other applicants are in common agreement, or indeed as yet known to the Court, nevertheless the Court took the view that the matters to be decided would be reflected to a greater or lesser extent in a number of different situations. It would be convenient, therefore, in spite of there being some doubt about the legality of the ‘interest’ of those objecting, to treat their objections ‘de bene esse‘, as having possible relevance beyond the scope of the present application.”

Potential health impacts

The potential health impacts of electromagnetic radiation have raised concerns as mobile phones have become more popular and since the 1990s have been the subject of many studies in Europe and elsewhere on the possible links between the equipment used and various health problems, here and here. These studies have been translated into national and international standards relating to both phones and transmission equipment, and it is these standards that underpin judicial considerations when issues of safety are raised.

In Re St Augustine, Kilburn [2013] London Cons Ct, Nigel Seed Ch, the Chancellor observed that health concerns specifically related children and other vulnerable people had been fully litigated in the secular courts where the position relating to objections on public health grounds had been made clear: T-Mobile & Ors v The First Secretary of State and Harrogate Borough Council [2004] EWCA Civ 1763, in particular the judgement of Laws LJ at 18-19,

“if in any given case the ICNIRP [International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection] [international] guidelines are met the planning authority should not have to look further in relation either to an actual health risk or perceived health risks. The rationale of the policy is the first sentence which, to my mind, is important for an understanding of the whole. There, the Secretary of State says this:

‘… it is the Government’s firm view that the planning system is not the place for determining health safeguards.’ ”

Subsequently, in Re Bentley Emmanuel Church  [2006] 2 WLR 1008 , the Court of Arches held that the ecclesiastical courts should not apply stricter requirements than those of the government and local planning authorities. On a purely technical point, the NHS states:

 “Levels of exposure to radio wave radiation from mobile phone masts (base stations) are generally much lower than from mobile phones and are well below international guidelines. Audits of the amount of radiation produced by base stations in the UK have found that the radiation produced is generally less than 0.005% of the guideline values.

Working with the above framework, the ecclesiastical courts have assessed a range of issues associated with the use of Wi-Fi in church buildings.

Other issues on this subject are considered in our subsequent post Wi-Fi in churches – evidence, system security and commercial considerations”.

[1] Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with responsibility for digital industries.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Wi-Fi in churches – health effects, courts’ jurisdiction and locus standi" in Law & Religion UK, 8 January 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/01/08/wi-fi-in-churches-health-effects-courts-jurisdiction-and-locus-standi/

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