Vicarious liability for sexual assault yet again: JXH

In JXH v The Vicar, Parochial Church Council and Churchwardens of the Parish Church of Holcombe Rogus [2023] EWHC 3221 (KB), JXH claimed damages for injury and harm caused by two sexual assaults committed in the period 1979-1981 by Vickery House [1]. The claim was brought against the parish, House having been the incumbent at the time the assaults took place [2]. The parties were agreed that the sexual assaults had taken place, that JXH had suffered damage, including mental harm, and that the appropriate damages award would be £12,000 [3]. At the time the assaults took place, BXB was living in a “quasi-monastic” community in a cottage in the parish with two other two young men, supervised by House [9].

The question before the Court was whether the Vicar and PCC were vicariously liable for the assaults in light of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Trustees of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v BXB [2023] UKSC 15 [4].

It was submitted on behalf of JKH that the Stage 2 test in BXB was satisfied because House had advertised the existence and nature of the community to the Parish and the PCC by a newspaper article in the local press in autumn 1979, in the parish magazine and in church services and that the PCC had known what House was doing and had not objected to it. Further: JXH had only joined the community because House was the Vicar of the parish; establishing the community ‘should not be seen as some “frolic of House’s own” but rather as being within his “authorised activities”’; he could not have set up the Community had he not been the Vicar; and the situation involved a relationship of dominance by House over JXH, including financial and emotional dependence and a degree of grooming. It was submitted that this was of a very different nature to the personal friendship that had been the trigger situation in the rape in BXB [154].

For the defendants, it was argued that the PCC had not authorised House to establish or run the community. It was a personal matter distinct from his role as Vicar; when he committed the assaults, he was not acting as Vicar or carrying out any activity authorised by the PCC. Essentially, it was House’s private venture and what happened was outside the ambit of House’s “akin to employment” relationship with the PCC. The claimant and the other young men were all adults, and Stage 2 was much more likely to be satisfied in a child victim case where the wrongdoer had been authorised to carry out some sort of caring role.

Master Dagnall held that it had not been “a situation of implied authorisation by the PCC of what House was doing with regard to the community” [187] and it was effectively separate from the purview of the PCC even though it happened to be located within the parish [188]. His conclusion was that the sexual assaults were not so closely connected with the authorised activities of House in his quasi-employment as Vicar as “to be fairly and properly regarded as having been done in the course of that quasi-employment” [195]. In dismissing the claim, he nevertheless wished

“… to record my sympathy for the Claimant who was subjected, as I have found, to unprovoked, uninvited and unconsented-to sexual assaults, and where this was to lead on to his being further assaulted, and where he is, simply, a victim. The Claimant may well feel (although I in no way decide or even comment upon) that he ought to be able to pursue the Church of England in some way for the wrongs of one of its ordained ministers committed in a purported religious context; but I am concerned with the question of law as to whether he can (or rather cannot) sue this particular Defendant. I also note that this Claim was commenced well before the Supreme Court decision in BXB (which decision was only made a relatively short time before the trial) and where the Court of Appeal decision, if there had been no appeal, might well have favoured a different outcome” [216].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Vicarious liability for sexual assault yet again: JXH" in Law & Religion UK, 3 January 2024,

7 thoughts on “Vicarious liability for sexual assault yet again: JXH

  1. I think the decision is outrageous.

    Where is House now?

    At the very least, he should have been dismissed from acting as a vicar and should be banned for life from ever holding any form of office within the CofE.

    Is there no right of appeal to any higher body?

    • Barring an extremely unlikelly similarity in name and calling, it appears he was sentenced to 6+ years in prison for sex offences, although he will now have served his sentence. Safe to say that he will never be allowed a church role again. Whether the church is liable to the victims is an entirely separate matter to whether he would be allowed to hold any role now. –

      • The FAQs on the National Clergy Register emphasize:

        “The National Register is only about those who are authorised. It will not say who is not authorised or why. There may be very good reasons why someone is not authorised, and conclusions should not be made on the basis of non-inclusion. For example, they could be taking a temporary break from ministry, or have retired, or be between roles. But if someone is carrying out ministry they do need to be authorised. If someone is suspended or had their PTO/licence removed, or their PTO has lapsed, they also will not appear”.

        The Register is updated every 24 hours.


  2. I’m not commenting on any possible right of appeal, but intrigued (and slightly mystified) that this fell to be decided by a King’s Bench Master.

    The church website confirms that House is not the current incumbent.

    • Rowland –
      It’s not unusual now for the trial of an action to be heard by a Master in an appropriate case. Paragraph 9.50 of the King’s Bench Guide (March 2023 edition and available to download from the website) provides:

      “The Masters hear trials of up to 3 days or longer if in their specialist field. The trial is listed by King’s Bench Masters listing and will be heard in a court room rather than a Master’s room.”

      The legislative authority for a Master to be the trial judge is rule 2.4(a) of the Civil Procedure Rules, which provides: “2.4 Where these Rules provide for the court to perform any act then, except where an enactment, rule or practice direction provides otherwise, that act may be performed—(a) in relation to proceedings in the High Court, by any judge, Master or district judge of that Court.”

      The trial in the JXH case lasted two days (5 & 6 June 2023), so was within Master Dagnall’s jurisdiction.

      Master Dagnall considered a different jurisdiction issue in paras 16-17 of his judgment, commenting that as the Claim Form sought damages “not exceeding £15,000” the claim should have been commenced in the county court, “notwithstanding that it is common, because of the subject matter, that sexual abuse cases are brought in the High Court.” Having raised the point with the parties after circulating the draft judgment, he made a ‘protective’ combined order of transfer and re-transfer back from the county court under section 41 of the County Courts Act 1984.

  3. The pejorative term ‘outrageous’ is not appropriate in this case. The judge has set out the evidence and his factual findings in detail and with considerable care and has then applied the law relating to vicarious liability as recently clarified by the Supreme Court in the BXB case, giving detailed reasons for his conclusion. (I rather doubt that you have read the 52 pages/216 paragraphs judgment.)

    In my view, Master Dagnall’s judgment cannot be faulted but, if the claimant wishes to appeal, he can apply for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal. (Interestingly, the judge points out in his concluding paragraph 216 that the outcome of the case might have been different had he had to apply the law before the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal decision in the BXB case.)

    The claimant could, of course, have sued House but, as the judge said (para 114), the fact that he had not “(at least as yet)” sought to pursue him was “neither here nor there” in considering whether the PCC was vicariously liable for House’s “wrongs”. It appears that the PCC was insured in respect of its potential liability (see para 126 of the judgment), which is no doubt the reason it was sued.

    There is one minor (and inconsequential) criticism to be made of Master Dagnall’s judgment: sections of the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) Measure 1956 (quoted in paras 119-121 and referred to in paras 117, 179, 180 and 188) are sections, not ‘Articles’ – but perhaps he was misled by counsel in the case, who clearly did not point out the error when the draft judgment was circulated before formal hand down.

    A separate issue is whether the PCC should be required to contribute to any ‘compensation’ that might, in future, be awarded to JXH under the redress scheme, the subject of a draft Measure (the ‘Abuse Redress Measure’) that was given its ‘first reading’ by the General Synod in November 2023 and now stands referred to a Revision Committee. Speeches during the debate on Tuesday 14 November raised concerns about the potential liability of a PCC to contribute when the abuse had occurred many years earlier before any of the current PCC members (who are the trustees of the charity) were members. This judgment, and its implications, will no doubt be considered by the revision committee, an ex officio member of which is the steering committee chairman, barrister Carl Fender from Lincoln diocese.

    As for Vickery House, he had already retired by the time of the criminal proceedings against him in 2015, by when he was aged 69, so there was no question of his removal from office or being ‘dismissed from acting as vicar’.(Reports of the trial can still be viewed on the BBC website.) His conviction would have made him “liable without further proceedings to a penalty of removal from office or prohibition (whether for life or limited) or both” under section 30 of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003. However, neither the Chichester diocesan website nor the C of E website reveals what, if any, such prohibition was imposed in his case.

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