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Court ponders whether minister is employee

22 February 2013

A PANEL of five judges in the Supreme Court last week heard an appeal by the President of the Methodist Conference against a ruling of the Court of Appeal in December 2011 that an ordained Methodist minister was an employee, and was, therefore, entitled to bring proceedings alleging unfair dismissal against the Church ( News, 1 April 2011; 6 January 2012).

Mrs Haley Anne Preston (née Moore) was ordained in the Methodist Church in 2003, and, after a period as a probationer, was appointed Superintendent Minister to the Redruth Circuit in Cornwall in 2006. She resigned in 2009, and began proceedings in the Employment Tribunal in Truro against the President of the Methodist Conference, claiming unfair constructive dismissal.

An employment tribunal has no jurisdiction to hear a claim for unfair dismissal unless the claimant is an "employee" as defined by section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. That definition states that an employee is "an individual who has entered into or works under (or where the employment has ceased, worked under) a contract of employment".

The question in the Supreme Court was whether Mrs Preston, in her capacity as a Methodist minister, had entered into, or worked under, a contract that was a contract of employment. It was argued on behalf of the President of the Methodist Conference that Mrs Preston was not an employee, but an office-holder, who had, as a consequence of her vocation, entered into a lifelong commitment to the Methodist Church, and was governed by the constitutional practice and discipline of the Church. Her position, it was argued, was analogous to that of a police constable, who was not an employee, but an office-holder, whose terms and conditions of service were set out in regulations made by the Home Secretary.

For Mrs Preston, it was said that the courts had correctly identified that there was a contractual relationship between a minister and the Methodist Conference, and that Mrs Preston's situation fell squarely within the 2005 case of Percy v. Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland.

In the Percy case, the House of Lords said that, although clergy were the servants of God in the sense that God's word as interpreted in the doctrines of their faith governed all that they practised, preached, and taught, that did not mean that they could not be "workers", or in the "employment" of those who decided how their ministry should be put to the service of the Church.

The Supreme Court heard argument for two days, and has now taken time to consider its judgment. If the court decides that Mrs Preston was an employee, the case will be remitted to the Employment Tribunal to adjudicate on her claim for unfair dismissal.

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