Church leaders awarded additional costs

21 May 2021

The Scottish government has been ordered to pay 50% additional costs following an historic ruling which found the decision to criminalise gathered church worship during lockdown to be unconstitutional.

Lord Braid, at the Edinburgh Court of Session, ruled that: “In all the circumstances, having regard to the increased responsibility undertaken by the solicitor in relation to the heads identified above, I have determined that an appropriate percentage increase is one of 50 per cent and I will so order.”

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, 27 Scottish church leaders, from a range of Christian denominations, had brought the legal action stating that the unprecedented closures were unlawful and breached Human Rights law and the Scottish constitution.

Their claim came in response to the restrictions outlined by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Friday 8 January 2021, which made it a criminal offence for churches to hold in person services and, for example, to conduct baptisms.

After proceeding to a full judicial review hearing, on 24 March 2021, Lord Braid ruled that it was not for the Scottish government to: “Dictate to the petitioners or to the additional party, that, henceforth, or even for the duration of the pandemic, worship is to be conducted online. That might be an alternative to worship but it is not worship. At very best for the respondents, in modern parlance, it is worship-lite.

“For all these reasons, I am clear that the effect of the closure of places of worship is that the petitioners, and the additional party are effectively prevented from practising or manifesting their religion, however many broadcasts or internet platforms may exist.”

Following the judgment, Lord Braid subsequently ruled that churches in Scotland should be allowed to open with “immediate effect”.

‘Irreconcilable conflict’

During the hearing, advocate for the Scottish church leaders, Janys Scott QC, told Lord Braid that the pandemic had highlighted a “irreconcilable conflict” which believers were facing between obeying the state and God.

Scott argued that the closure of churches was unlawful, criminalised public worship and went against centuries old practice that churches in Scotland have authority over their own affairs free from state interference.

Scott told the court that past legal rulings and the nature of the constitution meant that the state couldn’t interfere with churches.

She also said the European Convention on Human Rights did not allow the Scottish Ministers to take the action of stopping public worship and accused the government of ‘double-speak’.

“It’s not for the government to question the legitimacy of beliefs or the manner in which they are expressed,” she said. “The petitioners say that public corporate worship is essential to the church — it is of the essence, of the being of the church and that is a matter for them.”

A timely reminder

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre said, “I am delighted to see the skill and expertise that went into the case recognised once more.

“This decision is a timely reminder that governments may not impose excessive or unnecessary restrictions on churches. I hope that politicians around the UK will remember this as they consider lifting remaining restrictions and prohibitive guidance.”

Find out more about Church lockdown
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