High Court Rules Against Vicar's Vicarious Liability in Sexual Assault Case

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3221 (KB)
Judgment on


In the case of JXH v The Vicar, Parochial Church Council and Churchwardens of the Parish Church of Holcombe Rogus, the High Court deliberates on a claim for damages in relation to vicarious liability for sexual assaults committed by Reverend Vickery House, referred to as “House”. The claimant, anonymized as “JXH”, alleges that the defendant, the Parochial Church Council (PCC) of Holcombe Rogus, should be held vicariously liable for House’s actions.

Key Facts

The claimant asserts that during the period 1979-1981, House sexually assaulted him on two separate occasions. It was during this time that the claimant was a member of a community that House, the incumbent vicar of Holcombe Rogus during the relevant period, allegedly set up and exerted considerable control over. While the claimant and other members of this community involved themselves in parish and church activities, it is contended that the community operated independently of the express or implied authority of the PCC.

The core legal issue at trial is whether the defendant, represented in these proceedings by the PCC of the Parish Church of Holcombe Rogus, is vicariously liable for House’s actions under the principle of vicarious liability. Both parties agree that House committed the abuses and that the appropriate damages award would be £12,000. The parties also concur on the satisfaction of the Stage 1 test of vicarious liability, acknowledging the relationship between the wrongdoer (House) and the defendant to be akin to employment. However, the dispute lies at Stage 2 of the test, focusing on whether the conduct was so closely connected with the acts House was authorized to do that vicarious liability should be imposed upon the PCC.

The court’s analysis is underpinned by the legal principles outlined in the recent Supreme Court decision in BXB v Trustees of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There, a two-stage test is reaffirmed for establishing vicarious liability: Stage 1 involves confirming if a relationship akin to employment exists, and Stage 2 examines whether there is a close connection between the wrongdoer’s conduct and the acts they were authorized to do by their quasi-employer.

In JXH’s case, Master Dagnall applies these principles and additionally contemplates the “enterprise risk” or “enterprise liability” theory, which underscores that an organization that benefits from activities carried out by individuals within its operations should also bear the risks of harm wrongfully caused by those individuals in such activities.


Master Dagnall concludes that while the defendant implicitly acknowledges House’s authority as Vicar, there was no express or implied authorization from the PCC that extended to establishing or directing the Community or the associated actions of House. Consequently, House’s actions do not meet the “close connection” criteria established in Stage 2 of the vicarious liability test. The absence of direct connection to House’s authorized vicar activities, the location of the abuses (well outside the parish), and the lack of any Church or Parish-related context at the time of the wrongful acts strengthen this conclusion. The Court further reasoned that House’s role in the Community was distinguishable from his role as Vicar. This distinction is crucial as it underlines the separate nature of the Community’s setup from the Parish, thus not meeting the “close connection” requirement necessary for vicarious liability.


The decision sets the precedent that the mere knowledge and absence of objection from a PCC to the actions of a vicar does not constitute implied authorization sufficient to satisfy the “close connection” requirement for vicarious liability. It also delineates the boundaries of vicarious liability within the Church of England’s statutory structure, affirming a strict interpretation of what constitutes authorized activities under Stage 1 and the necessity for a direct connection under Stage 2. The ruling illustrates the court’s gravity in applying the principle of vicarious liability while maintaining the necessity to establish a close connection between wrongful acts and authorized activities.

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