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New C of E disciplinary process ‘could save £250,000’ and boost legal aid

24 February 2021

Ecclesiastical Law Society working group has produced its final report on the CDM

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THE Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS) working group that is looking at a replacement for the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) produced its final report on Wednesday.

The working group, chaired by Peter Collier QC, the Vicar-General of York, calculates that its proposed scheme will cost the Church an average of £652,000 p.a. This includes £294,000 to provide legal aid for all respondents accused of serious misconduct.

The group reckons that the average annual cost of the existing, discredited system under the CDM to be approaching £900,000, with only £104,325 allocated for legal aid (2019 figure).

The working group predicts a saving even if legal aid is offered in minor as well as serious complaints. This would put the annual legal aid bill at £438,000, making the total cost of dealing with complaints £796,000.

The chief purpose in forming an ELS working group was concern about injustices of the existing system. These have been acknowledged by another working group chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton (News, 11 December 2020). The final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) also addressed the issue of clergy discipline and supervision.

Bishop Thornton’s group, given the task of bringing proposals for a reformed disciplinary to the General Synod, has paid close attention to the deliberations of the ELS group. It has also slowed its own move towards firm proposals in response to calls for greater consultation, not least from the Sheldon Hub, a forum where clergy caught up in the CDM process have been relating their experiences (News, 12 February).

Financial savings are just one benefit attributed to the revamped disciplinary system proposed by the ELS, developed from its interim proposals last year (News, 18 September 2020). The working group writes: “We feel confident that we have reached final decisions on a scheme that will enable complaints of all levels of seriousness to be dealt with. We believe that the proposed scheme is one that will not only work, but will deliver what we believe should be at the heart of any such scheme, namely it will enable the Church to live out what the Archbishop of York recently described as a Christ-centred and Jesus-shaped life.”

In its essence, the proposed ELS scheme begins with an online triage process, which the group calls an assessment process, to be carried out by regional assessors, drawn from the clergy and the laity. Both the complainant and the respondent would be interviewed, plus witnesses if deemed necessary. Minor matters would be identified and dealt with through mediation, or recommendation made to the bishop that they be dismissed, if deemed trivial or vexatious.

The assessors, for whom training will be given, would be encouraged to attempt to resolve grievances, with minimal involvement of the bishop. In cases of misconduct, both lesser and more serious, the assessor would advise the bishop, who could take appropriate action, acting in the bishop’s “proper role as disciplinarian pastor”. The key element is that the decision on the facts would have been made by the assessor: “the bishop and the cleric will be bound by those facts, subject to the cleric’s right to a review.” The bishop could overrule the assessor’s judgement on the seriousness of the matter, but not the facts.

For less serious complaints, the working group outlines possible approaches that could, it suggests, involve an element of discipline without damaging the bishop’s pastoral relationship with the respondent.

Matters of serious misconduct would be referred to a central office for tribunal proceedings. Legal aid at this stage should not be merit- or means-tested, the working group suggests.

A plea and directions hearing (PDH) would take charge of the timetable to ensure that a trial took place as soon as possible, and certainly within six months. The tribunal members (a legally qualified chair, one lay member and one cleric) would be selected from a panel after a date had been set for the trial rather than as at present, when they are selected first and are then given the task of finding a date that they can all make.

The working group expects tribunal judgments to be given more publicity than they receive at present, for the sake of transparency and to improve understanding of the principles of clergy conduct. It argues that no time limit should apply when making accusations of serious misconduct, but proposes that the existing 12-month period of limitation remain for less serious offences.

Cases that follow a conviction in a secular court (section 30 cases) should continue to be fast-tracked, the group says. The power to suspend an accused cleric should be exercised only in the most extreme cases. Political opinions should be exempt from disciplinary proceedings. Matters of doctrine, ritual, and ceremony would need to be dealt with elsewhere.

Although the working group’s proposals allow for the quick dismissal of vexatious complaints, it admits to having no answer to cases where the complaints process is “weaponised” by unhappy parishioners against a priest. Attempts to resolve such matters are frustrated, the group says, “as it is generally accepted that a bishop has no effective power in relation to lay complainants”.

The working group’s report contains 16 annexes, including a propose guide to judging the seriousness of a complaint and 20 pages of worked examples, showing how their proposed disciplinary process would work in actual cases, ranging from complaints about a vicar’s children to embezzlement and an allegation of an “unhealthy interest” in members of an adult confirmation class.

Bishop Thornton welcomed the report on Wednesday. “It has been very good to work with [the ELS] and especially good to have two of their group on our group,” he said. “As I have made clear publicly, I am committed to finding a replacement for the CDM and I am clear that many of the ideas and detailed work in the ELS report is enormously helpful to us and all who will consider what a replacement Measure will look like.

“I am especially grateful to Peter Collier for the immense amount of time and effort he has put in to chairing the group and bringing this Report to publication.”

The ELS final report can be found at ecclawsoc.org.uk

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