It is well established that an employer can be vicariously liable for an employee’s actions if those actions are closely connected with the employee’s employment.
However, it is less clear whether this liability can extend to other relationships where the individual is not regarded as an employee. In JGE v The Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust, the Court of Appeal considered a claim by JGE that she had been sexually abused as a child by a priest, Father Baldwin (who is now deceased). She alleged that the Bishop of Portsmouth was vicariously liable for these assaults. The central issue in this case was whether the relationship between a Catholic bishop and a priest within his diocese is sufficiently similar in character to an employer/employee relationship that it is just and fair to impose vicarious liability on the bishop.
The priest’s relationship with the church was in many ways inconsistent with an employment relationship. He had no contract with the church and there were no terms of appointment or other conditions other than those imposed by the Catholic Church’s canon law. The priest received no pay or financial support from the diocese, nor was he subject to the kind of managerial supervision or control normally exercised by an employer.
The Court of Appeal identified the following key factors for establishing whether an individual is in a relationship which is ‘akin to employment’: the degree of control exercised over the individual; how far the individual’s activities are central to the objectives of the ‘business’; and the extent to which the individual’s activities are integrated into the structure of the organisation. Consideration should also be given to whether the individual could be better described as an entrepreneur working as an independent contractor. Applying these tests, the Court of Appeal held that the priest’s relationship with the Bishop was sufficiently close to an employment relationship, even if it did not match every facet of being an employee. The priest was sufficiently accountable to the Bishop, particularly when things went wrong, and was central to the church’s objective of spreading the word of God. In addition, the priest was wholly integrated into the organisational structure of the church.
The Court of Appeal stressed that the concept of vicarious liability is not ‘infinitely expandable’. However, this judgment confirms that organisations may be vicariously liable for individuals who are not employees, for example, agency workers, casual workers and secondees.