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Jewish couple sue over lighting that makes them ‘work’ on sabbath

Wednesday 15 July 2009, by siawi

From The Times, June 17, 2009

Dena Coleman: she and her husband will not use electricity between sundown on Friday and Saturday night

by Simon de Bruxelles

A Jewish couple are suing neighbours over motion sensors that turn on the lights in their communal stairwell, which they claim make it impossible for them to leave their flat during the sabbath.

Like many Orthodox Jews, Dena and Gordon Coleman will not use electricity between sundown on Friday and Saturday night, which they regard as a day of rest. But since the sensors were installed at Embassy Court in Bournemouth, the lights come on as soon as the Colemans set foot outside their front door — which they say makes them responsible for switching them on and therefore prohibits them from leaving the building.

The couple are suing their neighbours, saying that their human rights are being breached, and are claiming up to £5,000 damages. If their claim is successful, the owners of the 35 flats in the seafront building will be liable to pay the couple’s costs as well as any damages.

Dr Coleman, 56, a head teacher at a Jewish Orthodox school in Borhamwood, and her husband have owned the apartment at Embassy Court for six years and spend most weekends there. The lights were installed six months ago by the building’s management company to save energy and reduce the electricity bills.
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The couple’s offer to install a manual override for use on the sabbath was turned down by the Embassy Court Management Company on the grounds that it would set an “unacceptable precedent†.

In a letter to the owners of the other flats, the Colemans wrote: “Faced with a situation where we could never again have full use of our flat, we were left with no alternative but to seek legal advice. We consulted solicitors and a caseworker at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and were advised that we had a strong claim.â€

The EHRC denies giving advice on the Colemans’ case.

One resident, who did not want to be named, said that the couple’s action has caused “quite a stir†, adding: “There has been a meeting about it and many of the residents aren’t happy. There’s a feeling that things shouldn’t be changed just to suit people in one flat when everyone else is happy.â€

The couple claim that they moved into the building in spring 2003 after receiving an undertaking that movement sensors would never be installed in communal areas.

The county court writ against the three directors of Embassy Court Management Company, who all live in the building, accuses them of breaching the couple’s rights under the Equality Act 2006 and Human Rights Act 1998.

In a statement the company said: “The directors believe that almost all lessees at Embassy Court support the actions taken by the management company to reduce communal lighting costs. “Although other lessees are innocent parties in this legal dispute, in accordance with the lease expenses reasonably incurred in these legal proceedings will be recoverable from all lessees in the service charge.â€

The case is due to be heard at Bournemouth County County later this year.

Leslie Bunder, the editor the Jewish community website, claimed that the Colemans were over-reacting. He said: “As long as they are not physically doing the act of turning the light on, it’s actually not against the rules.

“They should not be putting the onus on their neighbours to change. It’s a bit arrogant really. It’s an embarrassment, it’s giving reasonable Jews a bad name.â€

But Chanie Alperowitz, the director of Bournemouth Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish group, said: “On the sabbath there are 39 forms of creative activity which are forbidden. Among them is the prohibition of lighting a fire.

“When using electricity, one causes a fire as there are sparks created by the electricity. If the light is switched on by someone stepping outside their door, their actions have caused it to happen.

“I think the neighbours and management company should revisit their decision and accommodate their beliefs. It is not going to inconvenience anybody, especially if [the Colemans] have offered to pay for the override switch themselves. A small consideration offered in an atmosphere of give and take would help to make the world a better place.â€