Britain's clairvoyants, mediums and mystics foresee trouble ahead.
A group of "spiritual workers" demonstrated in London on Friday against government plans to include their services under consumer protection rules. They fear the move could leave them open to lawsuits by disgruntled customers and troublesome skeptics.
"We live in a very litigious society," said Carole McEntee-Taylor, a spiritual healer and general secretary of the newly founded Spiritual Workers' Association. "There are frauds out there, but to tar everybody with the same brush is really naive."
Spiritual services are currently covered by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, introduced in 1951 to punish "persons who fraudulently purport to act as spiritualistic mediums or to exercise powers of telepathy, clairvoyance or other similar powers." Under the law, itself a replacement for the 18th-century Witchcraft Act, prosecutors must prove a medium or healer intended to commit fraud to secure a conviction.
But starting next month, spiritualists will come under consumer protection regulations, a long-planned move the government says will simplify the law and bring Britain into line with European Union rules.
Mystics fear lawsuits
The government says the regulations target "misleading or aggressive" activities and "will not affect the supply of spiritualistic services in themselves."
But many mystics fear they could be sued by customers unhappy with the service they have received, or forced to prove in court they really have otherworldly powers. Some envision having to make customers sign a waiver before a seance or a sitting. Even more gallingly, they fear they might have to advertise that their services are for entertainment purposes only.
The demonstrators argue that while spiritualism has a commercial side, it is also a religion, and should be treated like any other faith.
"It's a belief system," said McEntee-Taylor, 50. "By putting us under consumer protection regulations, we have to prove what we believe. Other religions don't have to do that."
In protest, McEntee-Taylor and about a dozen colleagues — mediums, healers, psychics and Tarot card readers — gathered under gray skies in Trafalgar Square before marching to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's 10 Downing St. office to hand in a 5,000-signature petition. They may or not have foreseen it, but Brown was not there to receive it — he was away on a trip to the United States.
The looming legal change has set spiritualist Web sites buzzing with speculation. No crystal ball has appeared to predict exactly what it will mean.
Some are less concerned than the protesters about its possible impact. The Spiritual Workers' Association broke away earlier this year from the larger Spiritualists' National Union, which claims 350 affiliated churches. The union says it has concerns about the legal changes and is seeking a dialogue with the government, but has not protested.
Several centuries of legal history suggest mediums have little to fear. The trend shows a long-term softening of attitudes.
The 1735 Witchcraft Act put an end to the execution of those who professed supernatural powers. The law presumed mystics were fakes, to be treated like con artists or beggars and punished with prison or a fine.
The Fraudulent Mediums Act carried a maximum penalty of two years in prison or a fine. It was rarely used, and only a handful have been convicted in recent years.
The new regulations provide for a range of civil and criminal penalties, including two years in prison for the most serious cases.
Groups like the Humanist Association and the National Secular Society have welcomed the legal change, saying it offers consumers greater protection against fraud.
"We are very pleased they are going to be brought under control," said National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson. "There are a lot of con people around who are preying on the vulnerable in society."
The protesters conceded there are sham psychics, mock mediums and other bad apples threatening to spoil the mystical bunch.
"There are so many charlatans out there," said demonstrator Bill Parkins, a medium from Stevenage in central England. "One guy told me someone had charged him $500 because he had a 'cracked aura.'"
But, says McEntee-Taylor, "most people out there are really genuine. They work from the heart, they work with love and they really want to help people."