Clergy discipline and employment rights: Károly Nagy v Hungary

Background

The applicant, Károly Nagy, brought a compensation claim against the Hungarian Reformed Church following his dismissal as minister of Gödöllő parish. Disciplinary proceedings had been brought against him in June 2005 after a local newspaper had reported him as saying that state subsidies to a Calvinist boarding school had been paid unlawfully. He was immediately suspended and eventually dismissed, with effect from 1 May 2006, following a decision by the ecclesiastical courts.

Mr Nagy then brought proceedings before both the labour and the civil courts. Both sets of proceedings were ultimately discontinued on the ground that the courts had no jurisdiction. The labour courts stayed proceedings in December 2006 on the ground that the dispute concerned Mr Nagy’s service as a pastor and that the provisions of labour law were not applicable to his case: that decision was upheld on appeal in April 2007. His civil law claim was also ultimately dismissed in May 2009, the Supreme Court concluding that there was no contractual relationship between Mr Nagy and the Church and, therefore, that his claim had no basis in civil law.

The arguments

In Károly Nagy v Hungary [2015] ECHR 1051 Mr Nagy complained about the Hungarian courts’ refusal to hear his claim for compensation on the merits, alleging that he was denied access to a court merely on account of his position as a minister of the Reformed Church. He relied on Article 6 § 1 (access to court) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination).

The Government made four preliminary objections:

  • that the complaint was incompatible ratione personae with the provisions of the Convention because the alleged infringement of Mr Nagy’s Convention rights was not imputable to the State;
  • that he had not complied with the six‑month rule laid down in Article 35 § 1;
  • that he had not exhausted domestic remedies; and
  • that, in any event, the complaint was incompatible ratione materiae with the provisions of the Convention, since Article 6 did not apply to the case [23].

The judgment

The Second Section noted that the applicant had not applied for a review to the Supreme Court and had not, therefore, exhausted domestic remedies on the employment proceedings: on that point, the Government’s objection was upheld and that part of the application was rejected as inadmissible pursuant to Article 35 §§ 1 and 4 [31]. However, he had also lodged a claim under ss 277(1) and 478(1) of the Civil Code for an order to require the Church to fulfil its obligations under what he perceived as an agency contract and sought damages under ss 318(1) and 339(1) of the Civil Code for breach of contract:

“Thus, the core issue in the second proceedings was whether civil law governed the applicant’s rights arising from his service with the Hungarian Calvinist Church, including the consideration as to whether the State courts had jurisdiction on the matter” [31].

The Second Section concluded that, by lodging his second claim, Mr Nagy had taken the step to exhaust domestic remedies that could be reasonably expected in the circumstances [32].

In brief, it dismissed the claim – but by the narrowest of margins. The majority [Raimondi P, Keller, Kjølbro, Lemmens JJ] held that the Supreme Court of Hungary had been within its powers to conclude that Mr Nagy could make a claim under ecclesiastical law before the relevant bodies of the Reformed Church but that such a claim would not come within the jurisdiction of the State courts. The Court pointed out that excluding claims based on ecclesiastical law from the jurisdiction of domestic courts did not violate Article 6 § 1 [73]. Moreover, though the Supreme Court of Hungary had held that the domestic courts had no jurisdiction to examine the applicant’s claim, it had in fact examined the claim, based on the alleged existence of an agency contract; and it had found that there was no contractual relationship between Mr Nagy and the Reformed Church.

The Court concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision could not be considered arbitrary or manifestly unreasonable and Mr Nagy could not, therefore, argue that he was deprived of the right to a determination of the merits of his claim [74].

There had therefore been no violation of the Convention.

Raimondi, Keller and Kjølbro JJ concurred in part and dissented in part, concluding that the complaint was not manifestly ill-founded but, rather, that it was incompatible with the Convention ratione materiae [15]. Sajó, Vučinić and Kūris JJ dissented completely.

Comment

This is an important case, covering as it does some of the ground of previous UK domestic cases such as Sharpe v Worcester DBF Ltd & Anor [2013] UKEAT 0243 12 2811President of the Methodist Conference v Preston [2013] UKSC 29 and Macdonald v Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland [2010] UKEAT 0034 09 1002 – all three of which turned on the question as to whether or not a minister of religion was in a contractual employment relationship with his or her Church. In all three cases the courts concluded that neither the Revd Mr Sharpe, the Revd Mrs Preston nor the Revd Mr Macdonald had a contract with their respective Churches such as to give rise to employment rights.

Absent a formal contract of employment of the kind that is given (eg) to Associate Ministers in the Church of Scotland, therefore, the decision in Nagy seems to support the contention of the UK courts: however, in view of the degree of dissent in the Second Section, one cannot help wondering whether it will go to the Grand Chamber.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Clergy discipline and employment rights: Károly Nagy v Hungary" in Law & Religion UK, 3 December 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/12/03/clergy-discipline-and-employment-rights-karoly-nagy-v-hungary/

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