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Religious Leader’s Employment Contract ‘Was Illegally Performed’

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Those who seek the protection of the law with metaphorical dirty hands are likely to receive short shrift. An Employment Tribunal (ET) powerfully made that point in the case of a religious leader who had engaged in tax evasion.

The man launched proceedings after his engagement as a temple’s head priest was terminated. Following a hearing, the ET found that he was an employee and that his dismissal was unfair. His complaints that he had not received the National Minimum Wage or holiday pay to which he was entitled were also upheld.

The ET found, however, that he and the employer had agreed at the outset that he would be treated as self-employed. That was a mischaracterisation of their true relationship. He either knew or ought to have known that he was, in truth, an employee.

The ET was satisfied that he knew from the start that the employer would not be deducting Income Tax or National Insurance Contributions (NICs) from his pay via the PAYE system. Over a period of three years, he took no steps himself to declare his income from his work at the temple to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). His failure to pay tax and NICs on that income was neither careless nor inadvertent, but deliberate and seriously wrong.

The employer turned a blind eye and its failure to take steps to ensure that he was declaring his income to HMRC, in circumstances where it knew that it was not doing so, was at best reckless and seriously wrong. However, the man was, if anything, more at fault in that he knew for a fact that no tax or NICs were being paid on his income, either by the employer or by him. His conduct was extremely serious and amounted to tax evasion.

Although there was no suggestion that his employment contract was itself illegal, the ET found that it was performed in an illegal manner. On that basis, the entirety of his claim was dismissed. Given that his complaints were otherwise meritorious, the ET recognised that this was a severe sanction.

However, when his receipt of voluntary donations from his congregation was taken into account, the sums in unpaid tax and NICs were very substantial and were likely to far exceed any compensation he might have been awarded. There was thus a real risk of him being unjustly enriched were he to succeed in his claim. Given the central public importance of upholding the integrity of the tax and justice systems, the outcome of the case was, the ET ruled, proportionate.