Parish councillor who left shop owner in tears faces huge legal bill
Parish council leader, 78, who reduced cake shop owner to tears when he terrified her with ‘Gandalf’ staff over sandwich board he said blocked High Street floral display faces massive bill after losing High Court libel battle
- Cake shop owner Victoria Nicks put a sandwich board in front of a floral display
- Council leader Rodney Goldsmith left her in tears after confronting her about it
- The Parish councillor was accused of threatening Ms Nicks by another villager
- The 78-year-old then sued for libel, but has now lost his case at the High Court
A parish council leader who reduced a cake shop owner to tears when he terrified her with a ‘Gandalf’ staff when confronting her over a sandwich board blocking a floral display has lost a libel battle.
Rodney Goldsmith, the chairman of the parish council of Steyning, now faces a massive legal bill after a row in the sleepy Sussex town escalated up to the High Court in London.
The 78-year-old was named and shamed on a local webpage, and was accused of ‘bullying’ and frightening local cake shop owner Victoria Nicks with his oversized walking stick.
Mr Goldsmith, who describes himself as ‘Mr Steyning’ and ‘the most well-known resident of the village’, had taken issue with Ms Nicks after she put a sandwich board in front of a floral display on the high street.
He issued ‘a peremptory demand that she remove her board’ after visiting her store, Victoria’s Sponge, in October 2019.
Rodney Goldsmith, leader of Steyning Parish Council, has lost a High Court libel case stemming from a row over the sandwich board blocking a floral display. Here he is pictured with his ‘Gandalf staff’
During the visit he ‘waved or brandished his large walking stick’, which High Court judge Mr Justice Julian Knowles described as ‘a Gandalf staff’, before leaving her in tears.
He was criticised for his actions on a local message board by another villager – illustrator Michael Bissett-Powell, 79, – who wrote: ‘I will never respect anyone who threatens a woman with a stick, is verbally aggressive towards her and abuses his position as chairman of the parish council in this way. A real man would apologise publicly and at least consider his position.’
Mr Goldsmith subsequently sued his fellow villager for libel, claiming the messages had damaged his reputation and standing.
He also described the cake shop owner as ‘oversensitive’.
But his bid backfired after the judge threw out his case and found that the accusations made against him were true, leaving him facing a huge legal bill.
The judge described Mr Goldsmith as ‘a large man’ with ‘a propensity to behave in a rude manner,’ who had ‘behaved in a rude, bullying and domineering way towards Ms Nicks, which reduced her to a tearful state’.
Victoria Nicks, pictured here outside her shop Victoria’s Sponge, says she felt ‘threatened’ by Mr Goldsmith
The councillor had ‘shaken or brandished’ a ‘long walking stick or staff… more akin in length to a bishop’s or shepherd’s crook, or a ‘Gandalf’ staff,’ at the cake shop owner, the judge said, adding: ‘I think he probably has an exaggerated sense of his own importance in the town, whether or not he is known as ‘Mr Steyning’ as he claimed’.
Setting out the background to the row, the judge said that in 2019 the parish council of the small historic town which is nestled at the foot of the Downs about 10 miles from Brighton, had been discussing concerns about advertising boards for businesses on the village high street being inappropriately placed where they encroached on pavements or blocked ‘Steyning in Bloom’ floral displays.
Mr Goldsmith, a former shopkeeper and keen Brighton and Hove Albion fan, had paid a visit to Victoria’s Sponge as part of a course of ‘pre-emptive action’ on October 30, 2019, in relation to the issue.
‘Because it is relevant to some of the issues I have to decide, I note at the outset that the claimant uses a long walking stick or staff, which he had with him in court,’ he continued.
‘This is not a typical waist-high walking stick, but somewhat longer, more akin in length to a bishop’s or shepherd’s crook, or a ‘Gandalf’ staff. As I shall explain, this stick featured in the evidence.
‘In relation to what I will call the ‘Victoria’s Sponge’ allegations, the claimant’s case is that he attended the café in connection with his Steyning Parish Council duties,’ the judge said.
Mr Goldsmith brought the libel claim against Michael Bissett-Powell (pictured) after he accused the council leader of abusing his position
Mr Goldsmith had told the court that the ‘oversensitive’ cake shop owner ‘burst into tears in a way which was sudden and unprovoked’ as he explained the potential problem with her board.
‘They had a conversation outside about positioning the ‘A’ board and parted on friendly terms, with Ms Nicks inviting him in for a coffee next time he was passing,’ the judge continued, setting out Mr Goldsmith’s account.
‘He said there was no altercation, no abuse of position, and no threats or verbal aggression. He did not go in ‘all guns blazing’ and tell her to remove her ‘A’ board.’
Ms Nicks however told the judge that ‘the claimant, who is a large man, came in and introduced himself as chairman of SPC.
As he spoke to her, he ‘gesticulated’ with his long walking stick, which she found ‘intimidating’ and his manner was ‘rather rude’, she claimed.
She said he demanded she remove her board from the pavement because it was blocking a plant trough.
‘She said the claimant insisted she take her board in immediately, which she declined to do. She said she became tearful and felt stressed. He told her if she did not remove the sign he would go to ‘a higher authority’.’
Ruling, the judge said: ‘In relation to the cafe incident, I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the claimant was authorised by the SPC to go and speak to those business owners whose ‘A’ boards were perceived as a possible source of complaint.
‘However, I am also satisfied on a balance of probabilities that when the claimant attended the cafe on the late afternoon/early evening of 30 October 2019, he behaved in a rude, bullying and domineering way towards Ms Nicks, which reduced her to a tearful state.
‘I reject his case that she is just ‘over sensitive’.
‘I am satisfied that he did indeed issue a peremptory demand that she remove her board; that he waved or brandished his large walking stick in such a way that made her feel threatened, albeit that he did not actually threaten to hit her with it.
‘The claimant described his perception of his reputation in the community. He described various charitable and other activities he had organised over the years, and described himself as ‘Mr Steyning’.
‘Because of the messages posted by Mr Bissett-Powell, he was subjected to ‘banter’ in the pub about his stick, he claimed.
‘He also referred to it possibly harming his chances of re-election to SPC in 2023, harming his charity work, and his role of organising transport for games at Brighton and Hove Albion FC.
A judge at the High Court in London (pictured) ruled that Mr Goldsmith was ‘rude from the beginning’ of his interaction with Ms Nicks
‘Whilst I think he probably has an exaggerated sense of his own importance in the town – whether or not he is known as ‘Mr Steyning’ as he claimed – there is no doubt that he is a well-known figure.
‘From all the evidence, I am satisfied the claimant has a propensity to behave in a rude manner, and that he had behaved in such a way on a number of previous occasions, and continued to do so even after 30 October 2019.
‘He regards himself as an important figure in Steyning. I conclude that he is a person who is used to, and expects to, get his own way in relation to Steyning matters.
‘I am satisfied on a balance of probabilities that: he behaved in such a way towards Ms Nicks, alone as she was in her cafe on that afternoon/evening; that he expected her to comply with his demands without demur; and that he behaved the way he did at least in part because she did not do so. I find, as she said, that he was rude from the beginning.
‘I accept she felt threatened and intimidated because of his behaviour.
‘The defendant succeeds on the defence of truth,’ the judge concluded, dismissing Mr Goldsmith’s claim against Mr Bissett-Powell.
The councillor will now face paying the legal costs of the case, which have yet to be calculated.
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