Clergy, marital difficulties and wrongful dismissal: Gould again

Background

St John’s Church, Downshire Hill, is one of the few surviving Church of England proprietary chapels. It is recognised as a congregation within the Diocese of London but is entirely self-supporting financially. The congregation owns the church building and receives no support from diocesan funds, nor does it contribute to them.

The Revd Jonathan Gould was employed by the trustees of the church as a minister from 1 September 1995 until his summary dismissal on 1 August 2016. He sued for wrongful dismissal, claiming that, whatever the ostensible grounds, the real reason for his dismissal was the difficulties that he was having in his marriage. Had he not been married he would not have been dismissed and, therefore, he had been directly discriminated against on the ground of marriage, contrary to s.13 of the Equality Act 2010 read with s.39(2)(c).

The Employment Tribunal dismissed his claim, but in Rev J Gould v Trustees of St John’s Downshire Hill [2017] UKEAT 0115/17/0510, Simler J had concluded that, on a reasonable reading of Mr Gould’s pleaded case, there was a tenable argument that it had been his married status and his marital difficulties that had led to his dismissal. That had been the reason for the Trustees’ treatment of him and the case should have been permitted to proceed. Simler J was satisfied that the Employment Judge had made an error of law in striking out his claim: she allowed his appeal, set aside the strike-out decision and sent the claim back to an Employment Tribunal for a hearing [36]. We noted that judgment here

A full Employment Tribunal heard evidence and argument on 1-9 April 2019. In a reserved judgment sent to the parties on 4 June 2019, it dismissed Mr Gould’s claims. It found on the evidence that the reason for Mr Gould’s dismissal was a loss in trust and confidence in him: in short, he had been dismissed for “some other substantial reason” within the meaning of s.98(1) Employment Rights Act 1996. The breakdown of his marriage had contributed to the loss of trust and confidence but it was only part of the context rather than the reason for the dismissal itself. Part of the Trustees’ concern had been Mr Gould’s overall behaviour in the context of the marital breakdown. After several attempts to retrieve the employment relationship, the Trustees had concluded that there was an irretrievable breakdown in relations between Mr Gould and the Trustees, the congregation’s leadership team, certain members of staff and other members of the congregation.

The Employment Tribunal also said that if it had upheld those claims or either of them, compensation would have been reduced by 100 per cent on the grounds of contributory fault and on the basis that Mr Gould would have been dismissed in any event, even if part of the reason for his dismissal had been unlawful marriage discrimination. Mr Gould appealed that decision.

The judgment

In Gould v St John’s Downshire Hill [2020] UKEAT 0002/20/0506, the EAT concluded that, although the discrimination claim might have succeeded if the decision to dismiss Mr Gould had been significantly influenced by a belief that a minister cannot continue to serve in the event of marriage breakdown, or would not have been dismissed in the same circumstances had he or she not been married, that was not what had happened. After an investigation in 2015, the concerns about his behaviour had been summarised in a document given to Mr Gould, which the Employment Tribunal had noted as follows:

“… the various concerns were set out under headings about question marks over the claimant’s leadership and him being seen not to practise what he preached and that he ‘lorded it over others’, whilst Christian leadership should be one of humble service lived through a life of example. The subheadings under these headings included: the claimant’s preaching; the motives behind the claimant’s preaching often not being honourable and driven by his personal situation; his showing little care for the well-being of his staff; how harshly he spoke to his wife, ‘depriving her of the emotional needs and support from a loving husband’; the claimant’s controlling matters and not trusting others to do things; the way in which he controlled things being manipulative and divisive, creating sides and alliances, creating camps and his ‘paranoid behaviour/questioning’; and a lack of accountability and integrity in his working behaviour (referencing inadequate record-keeping, HR records not being maintained, no documentary evidence of decisions taken).” [33]

The Employment Tribunal had concluded that the reason for Mr Gould’s dismissal was the breakdown in the relationship with the Trustees and other members of the congregation “and that it was not, even in part, because of the claimant’s marriage, his marriage difficulties, his potentially imminent separation/divorce or any combination of these three things” [53]. It had therefore found that the reason for dismissal was some other substantial reason within the meaning of s.98(1) Employment Rights Act 1996 and it had then gone on to find that the dismissal was fair having regard to the procedure followed and other considerations which were relevant to the issue of fairness under section 98(4) of the 1996 Act [54].

As a matter of law, it had not been a case of marriage discrimination and the Employment Tribunal had been entitled to come to the finding that it had reached. The appeal against the finding that the dismissal was fair was premised on there being an error of law in relation to the discrimination claim – and that appeal also failed.

[Picture from Wikimedia Commons.]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Clergy, marital difficulties and wrongful dismissal: Gould again" in Law & Religion UK, 23 June 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/06/23/clergy-marital-difficulties-and-wrongful-dismissal-gould-again/

1 thought on “Clergy, marital difficulties and wrongful dismissal: Gould again

  1. Perhaps of some interest is that the presiding judge in this case, Mr Justice Linden, appeared as leading counsel for the Bishop of Worcester in his successful appeal from the EAT in which the Court of Appeal held that the Reverend Sharpe (as he was referred to by the judges) was neither an employee nor a ‘worker’ within the meaning of that term in the employment protection legislation:
    Sharpe v Bishop of Worcester [2015] EWCA Civ 399; [2015] ICR 1241.

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