CATHEDRAL bosses could become embroiled in a complex legal fight after bookshop staff launched tribunal proceedings.
Six workers at Durham Cathedral’s bookshop are seeking compensation after their employment was allegedly terminated when the shop unexpectedly closed on January 22 this year.
But confusion has arisen over who is potentially liable for any payouts and proceedings have been listed against several different companies, including the cathedral’s trading arm, Durham Cathedral Trading Ltd.
A pre-hearing review held in Newcastle heard how Joan Cummins, Lyn Yard, Carol Ross, Susan Bolam, Elizabeth Towns and Eleanor Jones , are now all employed by Durham Cathedral Trading Ltd, which has taken over the management of the shop.
But questions have been raised about who was responsible for the staff when the shop closed and in the period until it reopened, five weeks later, on March 1.
The hearing, at Quayside House, heard how one of the six claimants, Ms Cummins, is continuing to pursue damages from Durham Cathedral Trading Ltd, but claims lodged by the other five employees have since been withdrawn against the Cathedral.
Other companies listed as potentially liable employers at the time the shop closed are St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG) and Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company. Those companies were run by American brothers Philip and Mark Brewer, who took over a number of cathedral bookshops from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), in November 2006.
Staff and managers walked out over changes to their contracts in which they were asked to work on Sundays and perform cleaning duties. And in April 2008, the Charity Commission took over the running of the shops because of concerns over how they were being run.
A hearing has been held to establish whether or not the London-based Trust, which denies any involvement in the shop’s management from April 2008, should be dismissed from any further action for liability. Miss Jeram, representing the Trust, said: “There are a number of uncertainties. There has been a great deal of confusion right from the beginning over their employer.
“The only issues can be who the employer was immediately prior to the closing of the bookshop and who the employer was at any time after that, in the period between January 22 and March 1.
“We’ve got to consider whether the claims should be struck out against the first respondent. At some point after June 2007 and before July 2008 it is my understanding that the Brewers attempted to wind up SSG LLC in Houston. After that time their employer could not have been SSG so it would have become the Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company.”
Claims against employers involve redundancy pay, unfair dismissal, breach of contract and unpaid work.
Sara Brody, representing the staff on behalf of shop workers union Usdaw at the hearing, argued the Trust should remain on the list of potential employers.
She said: “The claimants believe the Trust was their employer throughout, so their primary claim is against the Trust.”
Last year Durham cathedral bosses served SSG notice to vacate the shop, the last in the UK to be involved with the Trust, by May of this year.
The store unexpectedly closed four months early and the cathedral told staff it would employ them.
At the time the shop reopened in March, a cathedral notice read: “This marks a new beginning after three unhappy years”. Employment Judge Mr Jim Shepherd reserved judgment as to whether the Trust would be dismissed against any further action until a later date, but added the prospects of it remaining on the list were “not good” for the claimants.