Want to talk to an expert employment law solicitor?

You'll receive a callback from a specialist within an hour

In the case of Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses v BXB [2021] EWCA Civ 356 the High Court held that a religious organisation could be held liable for sexual harassment undertaken by one of its elders.

Legal background

A developing thread of jurisprudence in the sphere of vicarious liability is that which concerns religious organisations, and their vicarious liability for rape or abuse of victims by their employees, leaders, or agents. Recent cases which have made their way through the higher courts have frequently related to the Catholic Church, but in February, the Court of Appeal heard about a rape which was perpetrated by an elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The victim was a fellow Jehovah’s Witness, and the appeal was concerned with whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organisation should be held vicariously liable.

Factual background

Mrs B was a congregant at the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She became friendly with Mark Sewell, who was a ministerial servant in the congregation. Not long after, he became an elder. He was inappropriately behaved to Mrs B, kissing her on the lips to greet her, but she was encouraged by the teachings of the congregation and those around her that elders’ actions and decisions are generally not to be questioned and to be regarded as unimpeachable.

Eventually, Mr Sewell raped Mrs B in the back of his house, and was convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

The law

Vicarious liability – the two-stage test

The test for vicarious liability in cases of this type was elucidated by Lord Phillips in 2012 a case known as Christian Brothers. It is a two-stage test, namely:

  1. The relationship between the tortfeasor and the parties said to be vicariously liable to determine whether it is one that is capable of giving rise to vicarious liability (stage 1);
  2. The connection that links the relationship between those two parties and the act or omission of the tortfeasor (stage 2).

The decision of the High Court

Stage 1 – Relationship between Mr Sewell and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the court, could fairly be described as hierarchical, and that it exercises control over its members. The elders were leaders of the congregation, and that the congregation acts as a body through its elders.

The court also considered that, as the congregation had conferred power and authority onto Mr Sewell by making him a leader, which created a risk that that power might be abused, and that the rape might occur.

As such, the court ruled that the original judge was entitled to conclude that the relationship between elders and the Jehovah’s Witnesses was one that could be capable of giving rise to vicarious liability.

Stage 2 – Connection linking the relationship and the act of Mr Sewell

The judge accepted that the rape did not occur when Mark Sewell was performing any religious duty. However, that was not a necessary ingredient for vicarious liability of this kind. The judge also found, as he was entitled to, that but for Mark Sewell’s and his father’s position as elders, Mr and Mrs B would probably not have remained friends with Mark Sewell by the time of the rape. There was, therefore, a ‘strong causative link’. The Defendants created or significantly enhanced the risk that Mark Sewell would sexually abuse Mrs B by creating the conditions in which the two might be alone together.

For both of the reasons above, the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeal was dismissed.

Chris Hadrill, Partner in the employment team at Redmans, commented on the case: “This case shows that the actions of employees or officers can render an organisation liable for unlawful acts even if the unlawful act, when undertaken, is not strictly in the course of their employment (or engagement).”

Link to judgment: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2021/356.html

Want to talk to an expert employment law solicitor?

You'll receive a callback from a specialist within an hour

Share →

Our awards

Request a callback

    Your first name (required)

    Your last name (required)

    Your email (required)

    Your telephone number (required)

    Brief details of your enquiry


    4.81 Average

    313 Reviews


    Sacha was very thorough and very helpful, with great advice on when to act and when to wait on my case.

    Posted 2 days ago


    I have been very pleased with the support I got from Redmans Solicitors on my case with my employer. Caroline has always helped me to put things in perspective and showed me different scenarios ultimately to help me taking the right decision. She was very professional and always available when I needed, and at the same time also emphatic which I found also really important to establish a strong relationship. Will definitely recommend!

    Posted 4 days ago


    Prompt and efficient response to my enquiries. Excellent negotiating skills with my employer which considerably improved the terms of my settlement agreement.

    Posted 4 days ago


    Very quick and professional service , Rana was very helpful

    Posted 5 days ago

    James G

    Very professional, knowledgeable and kept me informed at every stage of my case. I would highly recommend Redmans.

    Posted 6 days ago

    Pravina P

    Chris was really good and help solve my issues with current company. I would recommend him to anyone.

    Posted 1 week ago

    Paul L

    Sacha was extremely helpful in my matter. I would not hesitate you use Sacha or Redmonds again. Everyone was very helpful.

    Posted 2 weeks ago

    Monique N

    I had Mel Chin helping me with a settlement and she was very professional and reliable throughout my case. Mel provided me with a good understanding of what was happening and gave suggestions on routes I could take. My case was resolved and closed promptly although the opposing side were very difficult to deal with. A very big thank you to Mel and Chris.

    Posted 2 weeks ago

    Jackie C

    My first ever experience needing the services of a solicitor; cannot speak highly enough of Mel and Chris’s personable, reassuring and straight to the point advice in dealing with my settlement agreement. They put me at ease during an extremely stressful time. I am equally as happy with the outcome, as l am their professional services.

    Posted 3 weeks ago


    Really happy with the service. All very efficient. Mel rattled through things very fast, however was great whenever I needed to stop and ask a question! Would definitely return to Redmans if I ever needed Legal advice.

    Posted 3 weeks ago

    Peter F

    Very helpful and clear advice, would highly recommend.

    Posted 3 weeks ago

    William A

    Second time I have had to use Redmans. They did not disappoint. They are fast , efficient and friendly. I have already recommended them to friends and colleagues. I hope I dont have to use them again but if I have to , they are the solicitors for me.

    Posted 3 weeks ago

    Fleeta C

    Great service with tantastic communications. The solicitor responsible is extremely knowledgeable and was responsible for bringing a timely and desired solution.

    Posted 3 weeks ago

    Veronica M

    Extremely helpful, starting from a request for advice at very short notice, to dedicating time for me to understand and review all documents thoroughly.

    Posted 3 weeks ago

    Sophie R

    Very efficient and professional service. Chris was very empathetic, knowledgeable and personable. Highly recommended.

    Posted 1 month ago

    Melanie M

    Very happy with the detailed advice provided from Redmans. They also helped me to secure a higher settlement than originally offered by my employer and were extremely diligent. I first spoke with Chris at relatively short notice and then Sacha dealt with my case. Would definitely recommend and use again in the future if needed.

    Posted 1 month ago


    Redmans helped me with a work related issue, which was resolved quickly and professionally. I would definitely recommend this company.

    Posted 1 month ago

    James F

    Great people, really friendly and professional helped with everything that I needed.

    Posted 1 month ago

    Anusha S

    My case was handled by Sacha who was very thorough and helped me to achieve a good outcome with my employer. Sacha was very personal, professional and helped me during quite a stressful time, so I am hugely grateful to her and to Redmans. This was my first time engaging with a law firm so I wasn't sure what to expect but I can definitely say that it was a good experience overall and I ended up better off due to having the help of an experienced and proactive solicitor on my side.

    Posted 1 month ago

    Diane P

    So grateful that I contacted Redmans to deal with my Redundancy Agreement. Everything from the initial call to the completion of the matter was professional, efficient and effective. I was listened to, had everything explained simply and kept informed of every step. I received super advice and the costs were very competitive. I would highly recommend them to anyone seeking similar help. First class service - thank you

    Posted 1 month ago

    Chris L

    It was a very efficient and effective service - Would recommend.

    Posted 1 month ago