Vicar Loses Unfair Dismissal Dispute

A vicar has recently lost a court of appeal battle over the right to bring an action for unfair dismissal, after being the victim of a four-year campaign of hate in his local parish. The court’s decision has been met with some criticism but has also clarified exactly when an individual is entitled to bring an unfair dismissal claim.

The appellant, Reverend Mark Sharpe, of Hanley Broadheath, was subject to a number a disturbances that spanned four years from 2005 to 2009. The disturbances became so severe that he was forced to step down following a number of health problems. The trade union, Unite, provided legal representation for Sharpe and sought a landmark decision that could provide all faith workers with basic employment rights.

The appellant case argued that, as Sharpe was employed by the bishop of Worcester, he was entitled to protection under the Employment Rights Act 1996. In contrast, the church opposed this legal action, stating that faith workers are ‘religious office holders’ under ecclesiastical law, and therefore not legally recognised as employees.

The basis of the court’s decision rested on the fact that, as a vicar, the appellant was neither a party to a contract of employment, nor a worker, and therefore he was not entitled to bring a claim of unfair dismissal.

Speaking after the court’s ruling, the bishop of Worcester, John Inge, stated: ‘To become employees, clergy would lose the freedoms which are at the heart of the church’s ministry and this is not something that they want to give up’.

Whilst the decision has been met with criticism, it has also provided much needed clarification to a particularly grey area of employment rights. For the time being at least, it has now been established that faith workers do not fall under the legal definition of ‘employee’ under section 230(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, and are subsequently not protected by usual employment rights.

If you are involved in an employment dispute and require legal advice on your rights in law, feel free to give us a call on 01536 276300. Our team of highly trained legal professionals have a wealth of experience in employment claims and provide clear, easy to understand legal advice at low sensible fees.