Getting to grips with the legal status of those who “work” in your organisation can be confusing. For example, are they actually an employee? It’s important to get right because different types of working create different obligations and rights, and one way we should seek to honour God is by properly honouring our obligations to others.

Many churches and Christian organisations take a less formal approach when engaging people, in the desire not to be too legalistic. It can mean creating a legal relationship different from that which both parties may have desired. A lack of intentional clarity around whether someone is an employee, self-employed or something else can also cause future problems if the relationship becomes strained.

Case study – Mr J Bennetts v The Trustees of The St Just Free Church

A recent case involving a church affiliated to the Wesleyan Reform Union of Churches explored this difficult area and provides some useful pointers when seeking to determine the status of those working for Christian organisations (Mr J Bennetts -v- The Trustees of The St Just Free Church).

The church in this case owned a manse. When the previous minister left the church and vacated the manse, the Claimant, Mr Bennetts, was invited to occupy the manse with his family in return for him carrying out some work as a caretaker at the church. He paid a reduced rent but did not receive any income of any kind from the church in return for the services he provided. The intention behind this appears to have been Christian compassion, with Mr Bennetts having nowhere to live at the time.

Mr Bennetts had been a self-employed builder and, before he occupied the manse, he had carried out some building work for the church.

Mr Bennetts and his wife acted as caretakers for the church, opening up the youth café when required and so on. The church supported Mr Bennetts in his application for pastoral ministry into the Wesleyan Reform Union. Documents created after he had moved in showed that he considered himself to still be self-employed, and not an employee.

After about 5 years, the relationship between Mr Bennetts and the church became strained. Mr Bennetts’ wanted to become the minister of the church. The church decided to advertise the role and then appointed a new minister. The church wanted to provide the manse to the new minister. Mr Bennetts refused to move out of the manse. The situation deteriorated, leading to the church revoking Mr Bennetts’ church membership and ending, with immediate effect, his “voluntary position as Caretaker”.

employment law

Mr Bennetts sought to bring claims of unfair dismissal, breach of contract and discrimination based on his religion or belief. Because some of those claims can only be brought by an employee, the Employment Tribunal held a Preliminary Hearing to determine whether or not Mr Bennetts was an employee.

The Tribunal concluded that he was not an employee, for the following reasons:

  • Neither party considered that the relationship was one of employer and employee
  • Neither party had considered it necessary to draw up a contract of employment
  • Mr Bennetts did not receive holiday or sick pay and no payments were made to him by the church
  • There was no express requirement for him to provide a personal service to the church, i.e. he could get his wife or someone else to do it instead.
  • Mr Bennetts was not under direct control of the church. He carried out his duties as and when he saw fit.

On the premise that the Tribunal found Mr Bennetts not to be an employee, he could not proceed with the claims of unfair dismissal or breach of contract.

However, the Tribunal went on to find that, although he did not have the legal status of “employee”, he was not self-employed. Instead, he had the legal status of “worker”, holding that there was “a contractual relationship between the parties under which the Claimant would carry out general ad hoc cleaning, maintenance and supervisory duties, in the manner in the time of his own choosing, in consideration for the arrangement with regard to the Manse, namely that he and his family could occupy it at a reduced rent.”  The church therefore owed him legal obligations under this worker contract.

employment contractThis contract was Mr Bennetts personally working for the church, in return for the rent at the manse.  As a worker, Mr Bennetts had legal protection from unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.  His discrimination claim could therefore proceed. (If the working arrangement had more correctly been one of being self-employed, a volunteer or an office holder, the claim could not have proceeded).

How Edward Connor Solicitors can help

At Edward Connor Solicitors our Christ-centred expertise helps churches and Christian organisations: to decide the basis on which to engage people; to determine the status of those who are already working; and to honour their legal obligations to each person.

In April 2020, the law changed and “workers” (whether or not employees) must now be given a written statement of particulars on their first day of work.  This statement must contain certain information prescribed by law. It is therefore important to understand whether you may have any workers within your church or organisation so that you can ensure you are being legally compliant.

Please contact us if you would like our guidance in this area. For those who may have workers who are not employees, we have also produced a model Worker Pack with the necessary documentation to help you be legally compliant. The pack can be found here.

Please give us a call if you want to talk through your requirements and find out how we might be able to help you.

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