Reverend Mark Sharpe moved to Worcestershire in 2005 with his wife and four children. Here he became the vicar of the Church of England parish of Teme Valley South. Four years later he stepped down because of mental health problems, which he claimed developed as a result of harassment.
Reverend Sharpe claimed that the Bishop of Worcester should have warned him about the problems the parish faced and, along with the church, the Bishop should’ve provided more support helping him in his work.
He claimed that his dog was poisoned, that he had his tyres slashed and mail tampered with in a campaign of intimidation aimed against him by locals. It was this hate campaign that eventually pushed Reverend Sharpe to leave his post.
The hate campaign was not the key point in this case. Judges at the appeal court decided that Reverend Sharpe was not an employee of the church. This means that he is technically unable to claim unfair dismissal from the church as he is not employed by them.
In making this decision, judges referred to vicars’ security of tenure, high levels of independence and the lack of accountability that vicars enjoy. At the original Employment Tribunal hearing, the Employment Judge concluded that, despite the vicar being given an offer letter setting out various terms of his appointment, there was no contract of employment between the parties. Therefore, the vicar was not an employee.
So according to the decision, in this case, Rev Sharpe could not benefit from laws protecting against unfair dismissal. He appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and this decision was overturned. However, the case proceed to the Court of Appeal and at this stage, the judges reinstated the original decision of the Employment Tribunal i.e. that the vicar was not an employee of the church but a “religious office holder” and as such could not bring his claim of unfair (constructive) dismissal against the church.
Slater and Gordon Employment Solicitor, Marsha Thompson said:
“In order to be eligible to bring an unfair dismissal claim, an individual must first demonstrate that he or she is an employee. When considering whether someone is an employee, some of the issues that a tribunal may take into account include:
• How much control the individual has over his work;
• Whether the employer is obliged to provide work;
• Whether the individual is obliged to carry out that work personally; and/or
• Whether the individual could be said to be carrying on business on his/her own account.
“The decision is remarkable in that despite the vicar meeting some of the requirements to be considered an employee, it was not enough.
“There is a high threshold for determining the status of an employee. This case illustrates how important it is that both parties confirm at the outset of employment what the nature of their relationship will be. Previous cases have accepted that ministers of faith may be employees, so it does depend on the arrangement between the parties.
“It goes without saying that it is important to set out both parties’ obligations clearly in a written contract of employment. Clearly, this case is rare and most individuals will not have the added complication of applying ecclesiastical law to their employment status.”
The case may yet be appealed to the Supreme Court.
If you’re considering making a claim for unfair dismissal contact our expert Employment Solicitors on freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us online and we will call you back.