Last month’s Court of Appeal judgment involving a Roman Catholic priest has the potential to widen the scope of employers’ liability considerably. Subject to any appeal to the Supreme Court, which remains a possibility, the Court of Appeal has decided that the relationship between a priest and the diocese in which he works is sufficiently close to an employment relationship to establish vicarious liability. That means that a diocesan trust can be liable for wrongful acts committed by a priest, even it is not at fault in any way (for example in failing to act once allegations of abuse have been brought to its attention). And it follows that the same could apply to employers of other workers who are not employees in the strict sense.

After a number of cases in which the defendants conceded that a diocese could be vicariously liable for sexual abuse committed by one of its priests, this was the first appeal case in which the Catholic Church has argued that liability should not attach as a matter of principle (the “stage one” question). Previous decisions have concentrated on the related “stage two” question of whether a abuse committed by a priest could be regarded as in the course of his work as a priest.

In this case the defendants argued that the scope of vicarious liability should not be extended beyond its traditional boundaries, which were confined to the actions of employees in the strict sense of the word. They argued that since the relationship between a priest and his diocese could not be regarded as an employment relationship, it would be wrong to hold the diocese liable for his actions, however appalling they were and however closely connected with his status as a priest.

The Court of Appeal has dismissed these arguments. It has confirmed that vicarious liability should be extended to those cases where the status of the worker is sufficiently close to that of an employee. It concluded that victims of abuse should in principle be able to bring proceedings against the diocese even though it had no contractual relationship with the priest. It was sufficient that the diocese exercised control through its disciplinary powers and that in a real sense the priest was representing the diocese and doing its work.

Although the facts of this case are unusual, the principles established could readily be applied to other types of worker who occupy the often grey area between conventional employees and independent contractors.