The evocative question 'Is there anybody there?' conjures up images of mediums summoning spirits in a darkened room. But now psychics must add a few riders before they invoke the voices of the dead, thanks to new consumer laws due to come into force. Breathless audiences are now likely to be asked: 'Is there anybody here... who is vulnerable, of nervous disposition, or likely to sue?'
Indeed, a whole list of disclaimers must be added to the spiritualists' spiel if they are to avoid an avalanche of writs following the repeal next month of the Fraudulent Mediums Act, to be replaced by the new Consumer Protection Regulations. Promises to raise the dead, secure good fortune or heal through the laying on of hands are all at risk of legal action from disgruntled customers. Spiritualists say they will be forced to issue disclaimers, such as 'this is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed'. They claim the new regulations will leave them open to malicious civil action by sceptics.
The problem is that very little in the multi-million-pound psychic industry in Britain is for free, and anyone charging or accepting 'gifts' in exchange for a service is bound by the new regulations. There are charges for seances, Tarot, psychic readings and clairvoyance. Spiritualist church service-goers - and there are more than 300 spiritualist churches in Britain - are charged or asked for donations. Psychic mailings - letters promising spiritualist services in exchange for a cheque - are estimated to have cost Britons £40m in 2006-07, according to Office of Fair Trading research. Psychic services via telephone, online and satellite TV keep the tills ringing further.
For the past half-century, 'genuine' mediums have been protected by the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act, under which prosecutors had to prove fraud and dishonest intent to secure a criminal conviction, which was difficult. There have been fewer than 10 convictions in the past 20 years. With that protection gone, there will now be nothing between the medium and the trading standards officer - and no need to prove fraud. Instead it will be up to the trader, in this case the medium, to prove they did not mislead, coerce or take advantage of any 'vulnerable' consumers.
Carole McEntee-Taylor, a spiritualist healer in Essex, said having to stand up and describe the invoking of spirits as an 'experiment' was forcing spiritualists to 'lie and deny our beliefs'. She added: 'No other religion has to do that. And how can you tell if someone is vulnerable? You would have to ask them if they felt vulnerable, or had mental health issues, or were of a nervous disposition.'
|With her husband, David, a spiritualist minister, she has set up the Spiritualist Workers' Association, to help regulate the industry and offer guidance on the law. They will be presenting a petition to 10 Downing Street on 18 April. Their website warns: 'The changes in the legislation are a minefield... given Britain's litigation culture. We have to fight it. If not, we will go back to the Dark Ages, where we will be persecuted and prosecuted.'
The Fraudulent Mediums Act replaced the 1735 Witchcraft Act. The government is set to repeal it and many other laws alongside the introduction of the Consumer Protection Regulations. If they are approved by Parliament, as is likely - there are debates in the Lords on 23 April and in the Commons on 6 May - the regulations will come into force on 26 May. They will ban 31 types of unfair sales practice outright, including bogus closing-down sales, prize-draw scams and aggressive doorstep selling, and will for the first time establish a catch-all duty not to trade unfairly, closing loopholes that rogue traders have been able to exploit. But spiritualists say the measures fail to take account of their religion.
'It is taking a religion, a way of life, and making it a commercial transaction,' said David McEntee-Taylor. 'If we hold a service in a village hall, we have to charge or ask for a donation to cover the cost of hiring the hall. There are bad mediums out there, and we would like to regulate them. But this is unfair on genuine spiritualists. Some people are very nervous of entrapment.'
Emma-Louise Rhodes, a researcher for BadPsychics, which seeks to expose malpractice, said: 'Hopefully, the new regulations will bring to justice those who have cruelly sought to exploit the bereaved for personal financial gain.'
A legal specialist said: 'Now there is no difference between a psychic and a double-glazing salesman in law.'
· Britain's first spiritualist church was set up in Keighley, Yorkshire, in 1853.
· Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was an ardent believer.
· The First World War changed the spiritualist movement dramatically, with more bereaved relatives becoming desperate to make contact with their dead loved ones.
· Doris Stokes emerged as Britain's first real celebrity medium in the Eighties.
· Princess Diana consulted New Age healers and spiritualists.
· Selfridge's introduced the spiritualist 'Psychic Sisters' to its London store in 2006.
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