This article was published by Voice of Russia – UK Edition
The Supreme Court has ruled it has no jurisdiction over one of Britain’s biggest churches. Hayley Preston, a former Methodist Minister has claimed she was unfairly dismissed by the church. But the Supreme Court says ministers cannot be considered employees. VoR’s Vivienne Nunis reports.
Hayley Preston was ordained as a Minister in the Methodist Church in Redruth, Cornwall in 2003.
Three years later she became Superintendent or church leader in her area – a position that should’ve lasted five years.
But in 2009 the Church decided the position should come to an end and offered her another post. Mrs Preston refused, deciding instead to launch legal action, claiming unfair dismissal.
Her case went all the way to the highest court in Britain – but now the Supreme Court has ruled against Mrs Preston, saying she wasn’t a contracted employee and therefore the usual employment law doesn’t apply.
Reverend Gareth Powell is the Assistant Secretary of the Methodist Conference:
“Well the Methodist Church is very pleased that the Court has confirmed the view that we had always held, which was that the employment courts had no jurisdiction over Methodist Ministers because they did not have contracts of employment.”
Those contracts of employment are central to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Barrister Oliver Hyams represented the Methodist Conference in Court:
“It wasn’t a contractual relationship because the majority of the Supreme Court decided in line with our argument that the parties had not intended to enter into a contract.”
Four of the Supreme Court justices found in favour of the Methodist Conference, ruling that neither the stipend paid to Mrs Preston, nor the house she was provided with amount to payment.
That’s not the view taken by Ronnie Fox, a city solicitor specialising in employment and partnership law:
“I would have ruled differently, which is a polite way of saying I think their decision is wrong.”
He agrees with the dissenting judge, Baroness Hale, who said:
“Everything about this arrangement looks contractual. “As Baroness Hale said, it looks like an employment contract because the minister received a stipend, received the benefit of accommodation, was taxed under Schedule E, which is the Schedule that applies to employees, and most of the characteristics of her position were identical to those of an employee.”
Reverend Gareth Powell says the Methodist Conference has the right to deploy its ministers as it sees fit, and it has an internal appeals process that deals fairly with its members’ complaints:
“The fundamental difference here is we are not dealing with a company, we are not dealing with a whole set of employment contracts. We recognise that the church is not beyond the law – far from it. In fact I think the Church is required to uphold principles that are fair and that are just. I think we recognise that the relationship of a Minister with the Church is simply not comparable with the relationship of an employee to an employer.”
That differentiation has led some critics to claim the church is being treated as if it were above the law.
But Barrister Oliver Hyams says many people including police officers and the self-employed aren’t covered by the Unfair Dismissal Act:
“Parliament has decided that only certain people will have the right to claim unfair dismissal. There are always going to be people who fall on either side of the line. To some people it might seem arbitrary, but unless every individual who supplies work personally has the right to claim unfair dismissal, there will be some people who don’t.”
Employment Lawyer Ronnie Fox:
“It’s not as though there was any evidence that God has come down from heaven to pay her her monthly stipend. The money was paid by the Methodist Conference and that must be one of the characteristics of employment.”
But the Court had the final say. It ruled there was no contract and in these matters, the Methodist Church organises its own affairs.