Law and religion round-up – 16th April

Revd Paul Williamson in court again

In July 1997, the Revd Paul Williamson was made the subject of a Civil Proceedings Order as a vexatious litigant pursuant to s.42(1A) Senior Courts Act 1981 (Restriction of vexatious legal proceedings), primarily as a result of a series of proceedings arising from his opposition to the ordination of women: see R v HM Attorney-General ex parte Reverend Paul Stewart Williamson [1997] EWHC Admin 691. The CPO prohibited him from instituting any civil proceedings in any court or tribunal “unless he obtains the leave of the High Court having satisfied the High Court that the proceedings are not an abuse of the process”. Nevertheless, he started proceedings in the employment tribunal on 1 April 2019 – without the leave of the High Court – in which he argued that the decision to end his tenure as priest-in-charge of St George, Hanworth, when he reached the age of 70 on 18 November 2018 had been unlawful age discrimination.

The employment tribunal held that his claim could not progress because it was a “nullity” brought in breach of the CPO, and the employment appeal tribunal agreed. He subsequently told the Church Times that he had referred the matter to the Supreme Court on his counsel’s advice, in the hope that it might deal with the principle and not be bound by precedent. “We make the point that the substantive case of age discrimination has never been heard and will affect thousands of priests, for many years to come … It is a matter of natural justice that the issue is heard in full and not swept away on a technicality.”

Earlier this month, he was back in court. In Williamson v The Bishop of London & Ors [2023] EWCA Civ 379, the primary question at issue was the meaning and effect of s.42, and in particular whether, where proceedings were brought without leave, it operated as a jurisdictional bar or merely as a procedural one.  The Court of Appeal concluded that the express terms of s.42 “read in context and in light of the object and purpose of the section” impose a jurisdictional and not merely a procedural barrier on a litigant subject to a CPO wishing to institute proceedings. Appeal dismissed.

Elections and non-party campaigning

We understand that the Electoral Commission has produced the final draft of its new Code of Practice for non-party campaigners during elections to the UK Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly and that it will be published shortly. The draft Code will then be laid before Parliament: see ss 110A and 100B Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was inserted by the Elections Act 2022.

The Code is subject to the negative statutory instrument procedure: it will come into force 40 days after it has been laid unless either House resolves not to approve the draft. It will only apply to a General Election held after November 2023.

The previous Code gave rise to a lot of hard thinking among religious groups campaigning on issues such as poverty and immigration – and Quakers in Britain registered as a non-party campaigner. 

Intra-church disputes and mediation

On Friday, we posted a piece about the Charity Commission’s inquiry report into the long-running dispute between two rival factions within the congregation of St Mary of Debre Tsion Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Battersea – which occasioned the comment, “What about Mediation?” In that case, the judgment stated in terms that attempts at mediation had failed, but the comment did lead us to wonder more generally whether mediation in religious disputes ever stands much chance of success. Possibly “yes”, if the dispute is about an administrative matter, but if deeper theological disagreements are the issue we suspect that attempts at mediation will be doomed to failure.

The classic examples are probably the split in the Free Church of Scotland which led to the creation of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) in 2000 and, before that, the formation of the Associated Presbyterian Churches in 1989 when several congregations left the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. To the average observer from the outside, the theological differences between the parties did not appear to be very great in either case (and, of course, neither of us is a Scottish Presbyterian): but we do wonder if, perhaps, once people feel that a theological principle is at stake the disputed principle can begin to assume overriding importance to them. For the results, have a look at this diagram of Church divisions and reunions in Scotland.

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