Pinning down an individual’s employment status is essential to determining the extent of their employment rights. Employees enjoy a far wider range of rights than workers, including the right not to be unfairly dismissed (subject to a length of service requirement). Key issues to consider in working out employment status are whether there is an agreement to perform work personally, the degree of control which each party exercises, and whether there are mutual obligations to provide and carry out work. However, a recent case concerning the “cure of souls” stretched the boundaries of conventional analysis.
The case required the Court of Appeal to consider the relationship between an ordained minister in the Church of England, The Reverend Mr Sharpe, and his superior, the Bishop of Worcester. Mr Sharpe had worked as a Rector between 2005 and 2009, with no written contract. He brought a claim for constructive dismissal (requiring employment status) and alleged that he had suffered a detriment because of making protected disclosures (requiring employment or worker status). Although Mr Sharpe had made an oath of obedience to the Bishop, he was given considerable freedom to carry out his duties. The Bishop had no power to commence disciplinary proceedings against Mr Sharpe and could not remove him from his office.
The Court found that the position of Rector was governed by ecclesiastical law and that there was no necessity to imply a contract of employment between Mr Sharpe and the Bishop. Because no contract existed, Mr Sharpe was also not a worker. Even if a contract did exist, the Court did not believe it amounted to a contract of employment, noting “the freedom of rectors to go about their cure of souls in the way they see fit” and declaring it “impossible to think of a professional person in an employment situation who would have the same level of security of tenure and independence of action”.
While the facts in this scenario are unlikely to resonate with many employers, this unusual case is a strong reminder that workplace rights are built upon the foundation of employment status. Employers need to periodically assess the status of their consultants, workers and employees to ensure that they are being correctly treated and their contracts accurately reflect the reality of their status.