Liabilities for church visitors: a checklist

Churches of many denominations are anxious to open their premises to visitors and for private prayer, and although advice is readily available on the security of the buildings and contents, information on the liabilities associated with permitting unsupervised access is less accessible.  Nevertheless, the importance of this aspect should not be underestimated, as the information on the  ChurchCare web site of the Church of England indicates.

“[t]he estimated value of church visits to the tourism economy could be at least £350 million each year. In 2002 Visit Britain recorded 13 million visits to places of worship, with these visits representing one fifth of all visits to major historic attractions”.

Many of the issues relating to visitors are similar to those which are applicable to a church’s other activities – health and safety; disabled access; fire safety, &c – some of which we have covered in a number of earlier posts: Health and Safety and the PCC; Health and Safety and the Church – the FFI Scheme; Health and Safety in the churchyard: national guidance and local interpretation; and Are wood chips the new jam-jars?.  Issues specific to visitors includes: the use of volunteers for “church watching”; and allowing unsupervised visits within a church.

Whilst on www.lawandreligionuk.com we do not provide legal advice, readers may find the non-exhaustive check list below useful in highlighting some of the issues that should be considered in relation to visitors.  A number of links to other sources of guidance are also provided, although again, these links are not being recommended as sources of legal advice.

1. Why would a visitor wish to visit the church?

This is a useful point at which to start since it assists in identifying specific points ofIMG_1717 (2) interest within the church, the churchyard and any associated buildings that visitors are likely to wish to access.  There may be particular features of the church itself, identified in  tourist or specialist  literature, [e.g..Simon Jenkins England’s Thousand Best Churches, (1999)] or associations with current events or television series, St Mary’s Bampton with its links to Downton Abbey, pictured right. These will assist in highlighting issues of access, security and other potential risks that need to be addressed.

2. What general liabilities exist?

It is important to consider both land and buildings associated with the church, and the statutory, contractual and other provisions that define who has responsibility for them.  In addition to common law liabilities in tort, such as the duty of care in negligence, statutory provisions such as the Occupiers Liability Acts of 1957 and 1984 are relevant since these extend the duty of care to both “lawful visitors” and “non-lawful visitors” such as trespassers.  There is extensive case-law including considerations of who constitutes “an occupier” and has “occupational control” when there is more than one occupier on the premises.  Some of these issues are addressed here

A number of tombs and memorials in churchyards have listed status and as such may be the focus for some visitors.  The Church of England has issued guidance on the maintenance of monuments, with specific reference to closed churchyards.  In summary

“The primary responsibility for the safety of a monument in a churchyard closed by Order in Council rests with the owner of the monument. If the owner defaults, a secondary responsibility is imposed upon the body having the duty to maintain the closed churchyard. This may be the PCC, pursuant to Section 215(1) of the Local Government Act 1972. Where, however, a local authority has taken over the maintenance of the churchyard under Section 215(2) its maintenance obligation extends to the safety of the monuments there.”

3. Others using church buildings

In some cases, non-church groups may have the use of part of the building not accessible to visitors, under a licence or leasing agreement.  It is important that legal advice is sought when drawing up these agreements and the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved are clearly outlined.

4. Health and Safety Legislation

The Health and Safety Executive, (HSE), has developed guidance for voluntary organisations and the management of low risk, here, and that relating to the management of a village or community hall is of possible relevance, here.  This includes a helpful checklist covering the most common areas of risk, and is applicable to all users of church premises including visitors.  The guidance addresses the applicability of civil law and health and safety law, here, and notes that in general

“health and safety legislation does not . . . . . . impose duties upon someone who is not an employer, self-employed or an employee”.

However,

“The HSW Act and the regulations made under it apply if any organisation, including a voluntary organisation, has at least one employee. The Act refers to employers and the self-employed as ‘dutyholders’.

The HSW Act sets out the general duties that employers have towards employees. It also requires employers and the self-employed to protect people other than those at work (e.g. members of the public, volunteers, clients and customers) from risks to their health and safety arising out of, or in connection with, their work activities.”

5. Volunteers

In many churches, volunteers (often referred to as “church watchers”) are used to give assistance to visitors to the church as well as providing a degree of deterrence against damage and theft.  As individuals they are not subject to health and safety legislation, although those directing their activity – a PCC or management Committee – fall within health and safety legislation, as noted above.

Employment rights such volunteers has recently been clarified as we noted in our post of 16 December 2012.  In X v Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau & Anor [2012] UKSC 59 (12 December 2012), Lord Mance held that Directive 2000/78/EC, relating to the establishment of a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, ”does not cover voluntary activity”, and was not prepared to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the EU for an Opinion.  Consequently, volunteers are not regarded in law as employees, and do not have equivalent employment rights. Since the often work alone, consideration should be given to their security particulary when the church is in a remote area.

6. Other provisions: Disabled access

Guidance on accessibility and the requirements of the 2010 Equality Act summarized on ChurchCare web site as

“Duties under the Act are placed on ‘service providers’, which include churches and the service they provide for worship and wider activities either in the church or a church hall.

The Act applies to all church premises including clergy housing.

Churches now have to take reasonable steps to change practice, policy, or procedure which makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to make use of its services.

 Use of premises by a disabled person must be anticipated and not left until the situation arises. It is important that all people are included in the provision of the service. For churches this could include considering access to the church, parts of the interior, use of WCs, noticeboards, churchyards and paths”

The site also includes detailed guidance

7. Insurance

In addition to the general aspects of insurance relating to any organization, it is important that arrangements relating to visitors do not invalidate any aspects of the cover purchased.  Ecclesiastical is a specialist insurance provider and directly insures over 95% of Anglican churches and is a major insurer for many other faiths. Through brokers it provides faith insurance for mosques, Sikh and Hindu temples and Roman Catholic churches, and is also the leading UK insurer of synagogues.

In addition to comprehensive advice on health and safety issues, there is useful on information on church security.  It also contains the following statement:

Locking churches

We encourage all churches to be open during daylight hours so that they can continue to be a dedicated space for public worship and a focus for events and community activities”.


At L&RUK we do not give legal advice, or purport to do so. This post provides links to information from other sources. For specific queries on the application of the legislation, professional legal advice and the opinion of the competent authorities should be sought.

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