Fire Safety in Church Buildings

The recent fire in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral demonstrated the extensive damage which can be caused in a relatively short time to the structure and content of an important religious building. This prompted a question to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman, (Meriden, Con), on what steps the Church of England is taking with the Government to ensure the fire safety of cathedrals and churches. This post summarizes the legal advice on the responsibilities of the PCC provided by Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod and other sources; also included are links to some of the practical advice in this area.

Fire Safety Order

The main legislation relating to fire safety in churches is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (S.I. 2005/1541) [“the Order”] which was introduced to harmonise and simplify and unify the earlier provisions on concerning fire precautions and prevention. The Order has a wide ambit and applies to all non-domestic premises, including places of worship. Its requirements are expressed in broad terms, and the short Opinion from the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod, (2007), indicates how these relate to the legal framework of the Church of England; these include the meaning of “responsible person” on whom the Order places certain duties, the position of the parochial church council and its role (if any) as an employer, the minister and churchwardens, and issues related to the use of the building.

“Responsible Person”

The key provisions concerning the imposition of the duties about fire safety under Part 2 of the Order (including matters such as risk assessment, evacuation of premises and means of firefighting) are contained in articles 3 and 5 [within Part 1 of the Order]. Through article 5 these duties are imposed upon the “responsible person”’, as defined in article 3.

Furthermore, article 5(3) provides that any duty imposed upon the responsible person is also imposed upon every other person “who has, to any extent, control of the premises so far as the requirements [of Part 2] relate to matters within his control”. The concept of control is further elaborated by article 5(4).

From a consideration of the Interpretation Act 1978 and s3 Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 in relation to the meaning of “competent person”, and R v Mara [1987] 1 WLR 87 concerning the word ‘undertaking’ in the field of health and safety legislation, the Opinion concludes:

“[8]. …the PCC in its corporate capacity is to be viewed in law as the responsible person”.

Importantly, it adds the caveat: 

“[9]. If the PCC delegates the control of fire safety matters to a particular individual, for instance to a churchwarden, such a person is likely to become directly liable to comply with Part 2 of the Order, in addition to the PCC, by reason of article 5(3). Non-compliance with Part 2 of the Order is a criminal offence; see Part 4. It may be thought undesirable to make any arrangement
which has the effect of exposing a PCC member or other parishioner to personal legal liability.”

This should be borne in mind when using pro-forma declarations concerning the Order. The Parochial Church Council Declaration of the Church fire risk assessment produced by Ecclesiastical Insurance is summarized (Page 1) as:

“A declaration about the awareness and understanding of the Parochial Church Council (PCC) or other church management committee of the requirements of the Order to be signed by the appropriate person”.

The Parochial Church Council Declaration, Part B (Page 4), states inter alia [emphasis added]:

“We understand that we must appoint a responsible person and other competent persons to give effect to such arrangements as are appropriate, having regard to the size of our undertaking and the nature of our activities, for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of the preventive and protective measures.

In the case of a church, we understand that the responsible person is the person who has control of the premises and we deem this to be the ‘Body Corporate’ namely the Parochial Church Council. We have also appointed the Parochial Church Council as the Competent Persons under the legislation.”

Below is a box  headed “PCC member(s) responsible should sign here”.

Employees of the PCC

The Opinion notes that sometimes the legal relationship of employer and employee exists between the PCC and those working as organist, verger, parish administrator and the like [10]. In such circumstances the PCC, as employer, will be treated as the responsible person under article 3(a) instead of article 3(b); in both instances the legal consequences are the same. However, if there are five or more employees, compliance with articles 9 and 10 is made more onerous in terms of record-keeping.

The minister and churchwardens

The minister (whether the incumbent or the holder of a licence) is by ecclesiastical law entrusted with various powers and duties in relation to the church building:

“[12]. The minister’s powers and duties are essentially spiritual and liturgical in character. They do not endow the minister with the physical control of the church exercised by the PCC. Accordingly the minister falls outside the scope of the definition of the responsible person given in article 3(b)(i).

Moreover an incumbent in whom the freehold of the church is vested is not the responsible person, as owner, under article 3(b)(ii), because the requirements of article 3(b)(i) are already fulfilled by the PCC.

[13]. The churchwardens, separately from the PCC, do not come within the terms of article 3(b)(i) because of the transfer of their pre-existing powers and duties to the PCC under section 4(1)(ii) of the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956.”

Leases under the Pastoral (Amendment) Measure 2006 and licences

“Where part of a church is the subject of a lease or licence whereby responsibilities for maintenance, repair or safety are assumed by the lessee or licensee, that party becomes the responsible person in relation to the demised or licensed part of the premises by virtue of article 5(3) and (4). Responsible persons in respect of the separate parts are, however, required by article 22 to co-operate together and to co-ordinate the measures which they adopt”. [14].

The identity of the responsible person is unlikely to be affected by the informal use of a church for meetings, playgroups, concerts and the like. The organisers of such events will normally have sufficient temporary control of the building to impose upon them, under article 5(3), a duty to comply with Part 2 of the Order. The article 5(3) duty is in addition to the duty resting on the responsible person”. [15]

Premises other than a church building

“Paragraphs 14 and 15 apply equally to premises other than a church building which are under the control of the PCC. Where church halls or similar premises are, however, managed by a separate body of trustees, those trustees collectively will normally be the responsible person for the purposes of the Order. If special events such as church fetes are held in premises not occupied by the PCC, it is highly desirable to establish in advance who is the responsible person for the purposes of fire safety. It should also be ensured that the responsible person has secured due compliance with Part 2 of the Order “. [16]

Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969

“Legal arrangements made under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969 may involve the joint denominational ownership of a church building and its management by trustees upon whom section 3(5) places “responsibility under any statutory or other legal provision”. In such a case the trustees will have the requisite control of the building to become the responsible person under article 3. Where an existing Anglican church building remains “in the sole ownership of the Church of England” pursuant to section 5(1) and functions as a parish church, in the absence of any contrary provision in the sharing agreement the PCC will continue to fulfil the role of responsible person.

Sharing agreements commonly provide for a Joint Council (on which the sharing churches are represented) overseeing a separate body charged with the management and repair of the church building. This body, often described as the ‘responsible authority’, will normally become the responsible person in place of the PCC. In all instances of sharing under the 1969 Act the impact of the Order will, however, depend upon the precise terms of the sharing agreement and the trusts taking effect under it”. [17]

Scotland

The document produced by the Church of Scotland, infra, notes:

“Although [this version of the document] is based on the English legislation, there is little substantive difference between England and Scotland so far as assessment and implementation obligations are concerned, and reference to English legislation can be considered as having a similar Scottish equivalent.”

Other legislation

Building Regulations

The Historic England document, infra, comments:

“Many places of worship are not subject to the usual controls over listed buildings. Six major Christian denominations are exempt – the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Baptist Union. These denominations each operate their own systems of control. (Guidance on the operation of ecclesiastical exemption and related planning matters is available from the Department of Culture Media and Sport, via Historic England).


Sources of information on fire safety

Legal advice

Practical advice, including legal issues

In addition to the above, there are a number of organizations providing fire safety advice as web-based information and as a commercial service. The specialist nature of the practical issues associated with fire safety is evident from the authorship of the documents on the Church of Scotland and English Heritage have been written by Institution of Fire Engineers and its members.


At L&RUK we do not give legal or technical advice, or purport to do so. This post summarizes the issues arising from the Church of England Legal Advisory Commission Opinion (2007) on the application of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in relation to Parish Churches and the parochial use of other premises. For specific queries on this and related legislation and the development of risk management plans, professional advice should be sought.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Fire Safety in Church Buildings" in Law & Religion UK, 17 May 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/05/17/fire-safety-in-church-buildings/

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