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Spiritual motivation does not preclude legal link

A case regarding the nature of the employment relationship between a minister and his church has been ruled on in the Court of Appeal.

Court of Appeal, published November 20, 2007. New Testament Church of God v Stewart. Before Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Arden and Lord Justice Lawrence Collins. Judgment October 19, 2007.

An employment tribunal was not required to approach its consideration of the nature of the relationship between a minister and his church with the presumption that there was no intention to create legal relations.

The Court of Appeal so held when dismissing an appeal by the New Testament Church of God from an Employment Appeal Tribunal (Judge Ansell, Mr P. Gammon and Dr K. Mohanty) which, on October 27, 2006, upheld the decision of a Watford employment tribunal on March 30, 2006 that the Rev Sylvester Stewart, was an employee of the church within the meaning of section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Mr Antony Sendall for the church; Mr Daniel Barnett for the claimant.

Lord Justice Pill said that the claimant, who was a minister of religion, presented a claim for unfair dismissal after his pastorhood was terminated. Counsel for the church submitted that since the claimant’s work had been done pursuant to a spiritual vocational calling, the Court of Appeal was bound by President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt ([1984] ICR 176) and Diocese of Southwark v Coker ([1998] ICR 140) to reject the employment tribunal’s finding that there had been an intention to create legal relations.

In his Lordship’s judgment, the House of Lords’ decision in Percy v Church of Scotland Board of National Mission ([2006] ICR 134) had established that the fact-finding tribunal was no longer required to approach its consideration of the nature of the relationship between a minister and his church with the presumption that there was no intention to create legal relations.

A spiritual motivation in working for a church did not necessarily preclude an intention to create legal relations. The earlier authorities were not overruled, however.

As Lord Justice Dillon had stated in Parfitt (at p183): “The spiritual nature of the work and the spiritual discipline under which it is performed must be very relevant considerations when it has to be decided whether or not there is a contractual relationship.”

That remained a principle of the law of England and Wales and was a reflection of the principles stated in article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guaranteed the right to freedom of religion.

That principle required a fact-finding tribunal to adopt a different approach to the evidence from that in a context where religious practices and observance were not present.

The law should not readily impose a legal relationship on members of a religious community which would be contrary to their religious beliefs. Those beliefs and practices might be such, in the context of a particular church, that no intention to create legal relations was present.

To take them into account did not involve any departure from ordinary contractual principles, especially in the light of article 9.

The tribunal had been entitled, on its findings of fact, to conclude that there had been an intention to create legal relations.

Employment tribunals should carefully analyse the particular facts, which would vary from church to church, and probably from religion to religion, before reaching a conclusion.

Lady Justice Arden and Lord Justice Lawrence Collins delivered concurring judgments.

Full story at The Times.

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