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Happy medium? The regulation of spiritual workers

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 27 October 2015
  2. Consumers
  3. 0 comments
Crystal ball

Regardless of whether you think psychics, mediums and other so-called ‘spiritual workers’ are gifted visionaries or just unscrupulous charlatans, you may have wondered how they get away with plying their trade in the world today. Regardless of your opinion on the existence of supernatural forces, there’s no denying that there is little in the way of objective proof – particularly to the level that would be required to win a legal case. So in a world where a beer advert can be banned for suggesting that alcohol makes you more confident, how are mediums allowed to claim they can contact the dead?

The history of spiritual regulations

Believe it or not, the law is stricter nowadays on spiritual workers than it used to be. Psychics, mediums and other such professions used to be regulated by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, which prohibited anyone from claiming to have otherworldly abilities only if they were doing so specifically to deceive people out of money. (Before that was the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made it illegal for anyone to claim that a human being had supernatural powers at all. This legislation dated back two centuries to the end of witch trials in Great Britain.)

However, in 2008, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 came into force, and the Fraudulent Mediums Act was scrapped. Under the new legislation, which still applies now, psychics and mediums are treated no differently from other traders.

This new approach raised some issues for those whose businesses whose end result is somewhat less than objective fact. Any claims a trader makes about their business need to be something they can substantiate if asked, which is no mean feat for psychics and mediums when the very premise of their profession could be seen as on somewhat shaky ground in relation to reality in the first place.

This may have always been a potential problem for anyone claiming supernatural powers, but under the old Fraudulent Mediums Act, anyone wanting to bring a claim against a dodgy psychic or malevolent medium would have had to prove that they were setting out to profit from deception. Under the Consumer Protection Regulations, however, a trader has to demonstrate that they had supplied the service they promised – and when that service is “contact the dead” or “predict the future”, the burden of proof is unlikely to be one they can shoulder.

What spiritual workers can’t claim

Not provably providing a service which was promised will see anyone landed in legal hot water, so those claiming supernatural powers are obliged to steer clear of any claims that they are actually able to heal people, predict the future, or any number of other mystical mainstays. One website offering psychic services was told by the Advertising Standards Authority that simply saying they could “help” people was a step too far.

Despite this seemingly intractable issue, the spiritual industry has seemingly reached beyond the veil to devise a solution. Canny mystics now describe their services as “for entertainment purposes only”, or perhaps describe their spiritual activities as “an experiment”, rather than solidly claiming that they can help people or supply reliable legal, financial or medical advice.

Of course, some people still put maybe a little too much faith in their abilities, but legally, at least, they make no claims that can’t be proven; they are, after all, quite entertaining to watch, regardless of whether that’s because you’re marvelling at their mystic magnificence or are simply chortling at people’s credulity.

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