THE Employment Appeal Tribunal has dismissed an appeal brought by the Revd Paul Williamson (above) in relation to a claim based on alleged age discrimination.
Fr Williamson was the subject of a Civil Proceedings Order (CPO), made after previous unsuccessful litigation. Section 42 of the Senior Courts Act 1981 gives the court power to make a CPO against an individual who is a “vexatious” litigant. The effect of the order was that he was not entitled to bring the claim in the Employment Tribunal without first obtaining the permission of the High Court.
The CPO was made against Fr Williamson on 16 July 1997. On 1 April 2019, Fr Williamson, without having obtained the permission of the High Court, instituted proceedings against the Bishop of London, the London Diocesan Fund, and the Church Commissioners for England (“the respondents”), alleging age discrimination in the termination of his tenure as Priest-in-Charge at the parish of St George’s, Hanworth, when he reached the age of 70, on 18 November 2018.
In the Employment Tribunal, the respondents raised the issue of the CPO. Fr Williamson then applied to the High Court for permission either to pursue the proceedings that he had issued or to issue new proceedings. In September 2019, David Pittaway QC, sitting as a Deputy Judge of the High Court, dealt with the application on paper and made an order (“the Pittaway Order”) that granted Fr Williamson permission to pursue the existing claim or alternatively to issue a new claim in the Watford Employment Tribunal.
When the case went back to the Employment Tribunal, the respondents argued that the Pittaway Order was to be treated as being of no effect, since it had been made on the papers, without notice to the respondents, and without the judge’s being referred to the relevant case law, in particular the case of Attorney General v. Edwards. The Employment Tribunal ruled that the Pittaway Order was of no effect as it was not possible under the terms of the CPO to give retrospective permission to pursue an existing claim, and Fr Williamson was out of time to bring a new claim. The Employment Tribunal therefore treated Fr Williamson’s claim as null and void.
His appeal against that decision was heard by Mrs Justice Eady, the President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal. She said that section 42(1) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 made the intention of Parliament clear. It imposed a jurisdictional barrier, not only a procedural one, when it stated that “no civil proceedings . . . shall be instituted in any court” without the leave of the High Court.
That was “entirely consistent with the context and purpose of a CPO”, the judge said. A CPO could have been imposed only when the litigant in question was “properly to be described as ‘vexatious’,” in that he was found to have “habitually and persistently and without any reasonable ground . . . instituted vexatious civil proceedings . . . or made vexatious applications . . . or instituted vexatious prosecutions”.
Parliament had provided that a CPO might be imposed in those circumstances, the judge said, because there was a proven need to protect the interests of the public against vexatious claims brought by the individual in question, and to protect the wider interests of justice by ensuring that the time and resources of courts and tribunals were not taken up by wholly unmeritorious litigation brought by the subject of the CPO. There was also a need to protect the resources of courts and tribunals against vexatious litigants.
Mrs Justice Eady in the Employment Appeal Tribunal had proceeded on the assumption that Fr Williamson had obtained leave from the High Court to pursue his appeal. The respondents had taken no point on that. But in a final twist, while preparing her reserved judgment, she had not been able to find confirmation that Fr Williamson had obtained such leave. If he had not obtained that leave prior to the institution of the appeal, then the effect of her ruling and the proceedings in the Employment Appeal Tribunal were also a nullity.
Fr Williamson said in June that his latest appeal was in jeopardy because he had no money left to pay his legal fees (News, 10 June). After the latest judgment, he said that he had referred the matter to the Supreme Court upon his counsel’s advice, in the hope that the court might deal with the principle and not be bound by precedent. “We make the point that the substantive case of age discrimination has never been heard and will affect thousands of priests, for many years to come. . . It is a matter of natural justice that the issue is heard in full and not swept away on a technicality.”