Case Comment: President of the Methodist Conference v Preston  UKSC 29
23 Thursday May 2013
The Supreme Court has decided, by a majority of four to one, to allow the appeal of The President of the Methodist Conference against a judgment of the Court of Appeal, concluding in the process that there was no intention to create legal relations in this case between a minister and her church.
The respondent was Superintendent Minister of the Methodist Church in one of its geographical circuits. She resigned from her role and brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal (“ET”) for unfair constructive dismissal. The preliminary issue to be decided by the ET was whether Ms Preston was an employee for the purposes of the Employment Rights Act 1996.
The ET dismissed her claim, on the grounds that she was not an employee, and therefore the ET did not have jurisdiction. In reaching its decision, the ET analysed President of the Methodist Conference v Parfitt  ICR 176 and concluded, in particular, that the spiritual nature of the relationship meant that no employer-employee relationship could exist.
Employment Appeal Tribunal and Court of Appeal
The Employment Appeal Tribunal however, allowed Ms Preston’s appeal, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal, on the basis that the House of Lords in Percy v Board of National Mission of the Church of Scotland  ICR 134 had discarded the rebuttable presumption that there was no intention to create legal relations between a minister and the church. The courts also considered that the minister’s arrangements, which provided for the minister’s duties, remuneration, accommodation, etc, should be taken into consideration when determining a minister’s status, and specifically, whether any special arrangements of a contractual nature had been made.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court, by a majority, allowed the appellant’s appeal. The Court disagreed with the courts below, and stated that the main considerations in determining a minister’s occupation should be the manner in which a minister is engaged, and the rules governing his or her service, both of which are dependent on the intentions of the parties, and whether they intended for these to form a legally binding agreement.
The Court did recognise that the parties’ intentions would be dependent on the factual background, which in this case, would involve the fundamentally spiritual purpose of the functions of a minister. A minister’s relationship with the Church is governed by its constitution, and was seen by the Supreme Court to be a vocation. Any rights or duties on the part of the minister would arise from his or her status in the constitution and not from a contract, unless special arrangements had been agreed.
In this particular case, the Court found that no special arrangements had been made and there was no intention to create legal relations as the entire relationship had been dependent on the Church’s constitution. Therefore, Ms Preston was not an employee under the ERA.
This judgment is important in that the Supreme Court has confirmed the position established by the EAT and CA judgments that in order to classify a minister’s occupation, the focus will be on the intentions of the parties. That is not to say that the spiritual nature of the relationship is irrelevant however; it will be one of the matters that a court considers when seeking to determine the parties intentions.
The judgment also makes clear that a court should look to whether any special arrangements have been agreed between the parties. Whereas previous case law has considered only the spiritual nature of the relationship or the parties’ intentions as the primary factors in determining a minister’s occupation, the Supreme Court dealt with the position of the Methodist ministry generally, before examining any special arrangements made with Ms Preston. Such special arrangements need to be considered in order to examine further and more closely whether the parties had an intention to form legal relations.