A witness summons against two religious elders was to be upheld and disclosure ordered, the Family Court has held in the 2020 case of Lancashire County Council v E and F.
In this case, two ministers (A and B) of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation applied to have a witness summons sent to them set aside. This was against the background of an allegation of two incidents of sexual abuse by F against his daughter, which he denied.
The parents of the children were both Jehovah’s Witnesses although F was effectively being shunned by the religious community. Both children were made the subjects of child protection plans. After a contested hearing, the court ordered that the children be placed with foster parents. In the meantime, the Local Authority was ordered to file and serve statements from A and B setting out their investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse and for disclosure of certain documents.
They refused and a witness summons was issued. A and B then applied to have it withdrawn on the basis that in their role as ministers of religion they are under a duty of confidentiality – a duty protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was claimed the communications with A and B, and the documents sought under the witness summons, should be treated in the same way as a religious confession.
At issue was, in what circumstances can disclosure be resisted on grounds of a religious duty of confidentiality in the context of allegations of child sexual abuse? There were also wider concerns about the safeguarding of children within the Jehovah’s Witness’s community.
The court ordered the witness summons to be upheld and disclosure ordered for a number of reasons including:
- The material sought was not akin to a confession.
- The material sought did not, on the evidence, amount to ‘spiritual counselling’ as claimed.
- By virtue of the JW congregation’s own policy, the particular allegations should have been reported.
- The duty of religious confidentiality is not an absolute duty: ‘It could not be more obvious that a freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs must give way to the need to protect a child from sexual abuse’.
The court also ruled that the witness summons, and the requirement for full statements and the documents sought, were a proportionate interference in A and B’s right to manifest their religion.
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