A legal case about ethnic restrictions on the British National Party's membership rules has been adjourned.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is seeking an injunction against BNP leader Nick Griffin and two other party officials. It claims they are breaking the Race Relations Act by restricting membership to "indigenous Caucasian" people. The BNP says it is a "vexatious and spiteful" action prompted by its recent successes in the European elections.
The case was adjourned to give the BNP more time to prepare a defence, after the court was told the party had only instructed its counsel, Jonathan O'Mahoney, at 5pm on Tuesday. Mr Griffin and fellow party officers Simon Darby and Tanya Lumby did not attend the hearing at Central London County Court.
Judge Paul Collins said: "The Commission take the view that the terms on which the BNP admit persons to membership is in breach of the Race Relations Act because it discriminates against persons on the grounds of race and they want an injunction to stop it."
But he pointed out that it had taken a "long time for someone to get round to the idea" that the BNP - which was founded 27 years ago - could be in breach of the Race Relations Act.
The evidence suggested that the case was prompted by complaints made to the Commission after the BNP won two seats in the European Parliament in June, he added. He also pointed out that the EHRC had not provided any evidence that there was "a long queue of black people wanting to join the BNP". But he said the BNP had known since June about the possibility of legal action and said it was "unfair" of the party to have instructed Mr O'Mahoney at the last minute. He therefore ordered the BNP to pay the costs of the hearing.
But the judge refused a request by Robin Allen QC, counsel for the EHRC, to impose an interim order on the BNP preventing it from recruiting new members through its website and forcing it "not to refuse membership to any non-white members, or would-be members, on the grounds of colour". The judge said it would be "inappropriate" given that the BNP had been in existence for 27 years and was due back in court over the matter next month.
He told defendants they had 21 days to serve their evidence, with a further 14 days for the claimants to respond before the next one-day hearing, scheduled for 15 October.
Mr O'Mahoney told the court that the BNP had appointed a new legal team in the past week after dispensing with the services of its original solicitors, who had advised it not to contest the case. But Mr Allen accused the party of being "reluctant to come to court to state their case" and appearing "to be doing everything to avoid the course of justice".
Outside court, a spokesman for the EHRC said its predecessor organisation, the Commission for Racial Equality, did not have the powers to take such legal action and that the EHRC was set up only in October 2007.
Stephen Tyler, the BNP Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bermondsey in south east London, who attended the hearing, said: "The BNP thrives on adversity. Whatever the outcome, it is going to emerge much stronger than it already is."
Mr Tyler, who teaches international relations at a private college, said it was "a vexatious, spiteful case". And he claimed the BNP had "a lot of supporters from ethnic minorities," adding: "They understand why the membership list is closed to them."