The Claimant was a vicar at St John’s Downshire Hill evangelical church. During his employment, he became estranged from his wife and the marriage broke down irreparably. The vicar was subsequently dismissed by a unanimous decision of the Trustees of the church. He alleged that the reason for his dismissal was the breakdown of his marriage and made claims for unfair dismissal and marriage discrimination.
The Employment Tribunal found on the evidence that the reason for the vicar's dismissal was in fact a loss in trust and confidence in the vicar, being a dismissal for SOSR. The breakdown in the vicar's marriage contributed to the loss of trust and confidence in him but was part of the background context, not the reason for the dismissal itself. Part of the Trustees concern was the vicar's behaviour in the context of the marital breakdown, including a public manifestation of his marital difficulties involving sharing personal details about his marriage and his wife's difficulties with the congregation. Other concerns which contributed to an unravelling of trust and confidence over two years prior to the dismissal included issues concerning governance, property transactions, conflicts of interests and mismanagement. As a result of these issues, members of the church congregation ceased to attend services, financial contributions reduced and in one year, the leadership resigned en masse.
After several attempts to retrieve the employment relationship, the Trustees concluded that there was an irretrievable breakdown in relations between the vicar and the Trustees, the leadership team, certain members of staff and other members of the congregation.
The Employment Tribunal rejected the marriage discrimination claim, finding that the reason for dismissal was not a religious or moral belief that a vicar whose marriage breaks down cannot continue to serve.
The Employment Tribunal also found that the dismissal was fair.
The EAT upheld the decision of the Employment Tribunal but found that the marriage discrimination claim may have succeeded if:
Employers may sometimes be faced with disputes between employees and leadership where relations become strained. In most cases, it will be possible to continue to work together professionally with proper, effective management and support.
Where an employer finds that this is simply not feasible, and there is a loss of trust and confidence in an employee which seriously impacts the operation of the organisation, a dismissal for SOSR can be considered. It must be stressed, however, that there is a high threshold to meet and a tribunal will expect employers to take all reasonable steps to solve the problem without resorting to dismissal. In this case, the Trustees were willing to take measures such as mediation, or the vicar taking a sabbatical, which might retrieve the employment relationship.
Care should also be taken where the reason for dismissal could be alleged to be related to some form of protected characteristic, which could give rise to claims of discrimination.
In most cases, early intervention in disputes or disagreements between employees and management is the most effective solution.