This morning the Supreme Court handed down judgment in Barclays Bank v Various Claimants  UKSC 13 (‘Barclays’). The judgment was handed down together with the parallel decision in WM Morrison Supermarkets plc v Various Claimants  UKSC 12 (‘Morrisons’).
Barclays Bank was represented in the Supreme Court by Lord Faulks QC and Katie Ayres of 1 Chancery Lane, instructed by Keoghs LLP.
An article will follow later in the week setting out comprehensively the law on vicarious liability in the light of these two landmark judgments. This article addresses only the judgment in Barclays which examines ‘Stage 1’ of the test for vicarious liability (is the relationship capable of giving rise to vicarious liability). Morrisons addresses ‘Stage 2’ (is there a sufficiently close connection between the employment and the tort).
The issue before the Court was whether Barclays Bank was vicariously liable for the sexual assaults committed between 1968 and 1984 by the late Dr Gordon Bates. The claim was brought as a group action on behalf of 126 claimants.
Applicants for jobs at Barclays who were successful at interview would be told that they would be offered a job, subject to passing a medical examination and obtaining satisfactory results in their GCE exams.
Dr Bates, who had died in 2009, was a GP who practiced in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He had, what was referred to in evidence as, a ‘portfolio practice’. Some of the time he would work as an employee in a local hospital, other times he would carry out medical examinations for emigration purposes or other work for insurance companies, a mining company and a government board. He also wrote a newspaper column. His work for Barclays conducting medical examinations, for which he was paid a set fee per examination, was a comparatively minor part of his practice. Dr Bates was, conversely, the only doctor that Barclays used for its North East operations and was referred to as ‘the Bank’s doctor’.
The Claimants alleged that Dr Bates sexually assaulted them in the course of their pre-employment medical examinations.
The issue of whether Barclays was vicariously liable for the assaults was tried as a preliminary issue by Nicola Davies J who found in favour of the Claimants. This decision was upheld in the Court of Appeal. Barclays appealed to the Supreme Court.
By the time the case reached the Supreme Court the only issue was whether Stage 1 of the test for vicarious liability was satisfied. Barclays did not appeal the finding that, if Stage 1 was satisfied, Stage 2 was also satisfied.
The Parties’ Submissions
Barclays argued that, although recent decisions have expanded the categories of relationship which can give rise to vicarious liability beyond a contract ofemployment, they have not expanded it so far that the ‘trite’ proposition of law that no vicarious liability arises in the case of an ‘independent contractor’ had been destroyed.
The Claimants, conversely, argued that recent Supreme Court authority (Various Claimants v Catholic Child Welfare Society  UKSC 56 (‘Christian Brothers’), Cox v Ministry of Justice  UKSC 10 (‘Cox’), Armes v Nottinghamshire CC  UKSC 60 (‘Armes’)) called for a more nuanced approach to the question of vicarious liability involving a multi-factorial analysis of various factors which determine in each case whether it is ‘fair, just and reasonable’ to impose liability. This approach would necessarily lead to the loss of the historic distinction between an employee and an independent contractor for the purposes of determining vicarious liability.
Lady Hale, who gives the unanimous judgment of the Court in Barclays, sat on all three of the Supreme Court cases relied upon by the Claimants. Lord Reed delivered the lead judgments in Cox and Armes, and Lord Kerr sat on Christian Brothers and Armes. It was safe to say that the panel chosen to sit on Barclays was extremely well versed in the matters before them.
Discussion of the Case Law
Lady Hale at  to  provides a succinct yet comprehensive summary of the development of the doctrine of vicarious liability since the decision in Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd  UKHL 22 which first confirmed the ‘two stage’ enquiry for determining vicarious liability. The most influential decisions that she discusses are:
- E v English Province of Our Lady of Charity  EWCA Civ 938 at -. In E’s case the Court found that a bishop was in a sufficiently close relationship (‘akin to employment’) with the diocese for vicarious liability to arise. Lady Hale notes that Ward LJ did not question the traditional distinction between an employee and an independent contractor.
- Christian Brothers at -. This is the case upon which the Claimants’ argument ultimately rested. At , Lade Hale sets out the ‘five factors’ which Lord Phillips listed as ‘policy reasons’ for why it is usually fair, just and reasonable to impose vicarious liability on an employer for the torts committed by an employee. Lady Hale is critical of the use of these ‘policy reasons’ as being instead ‘principles which should guide the development of that liability into relationships which are not employment…’ . She goes on to say that these five factors are not ‘the only criteria by which to judge the question’ and what is required is a ‘searching enquiry’ looking at ‘the detailed features of the relationship’ .
- Cox at -. Although Lord Reed appears to have applied Lord Phillips’ five factors, whilst acknowledging that they were not all of equal significance, Lady Hale concludes that, ‘[i]t seems to me obvious that in Cox the result was bound to be the same whether it was expressed in terms of the [five factors test] or in terms of the “sufficiently akin to employment” test’ and that, ‘[t]here is nothing in Lord Reed’s judgment to cast doubt on the classic distinction between work done for an employer as part of the business of that employer and work done by an independent contractor as part of the business of that contractor’ .
- Armes at . Lady Hale describes Armes as the ‘most difficult case’. Although Lord Reed again appeared to apply the five factors test, importantly, Lady Hale notes that he also concluded that ‘the foster parents…cannot be regarded as carrying on an independent business of their own’ (at paragraph ).
- Kafagi v JBW Group Ltd  EWCA Civ 1157 at . Kafagi was a Court of Appeal decision which appeared to contradict the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in In Kafagi, Singh LJ stated that the development from employment to something ‘akin to employment’ had not undermined the conventional distinction between a contract of employment and a contract for services. Accordingly, a defendant company was not vicariously liable for the debt-collection work that it had sub-contracted to a self-employed bailiff.
- Ng Huat Seng v Mohammad  SGCA 58 at . Somewhat unusually, Lady Hale quotes extensively from this judgment of the Singapore Supreme Court. This is likely to be because, although not ordinarily a jurisdiction which has historically provided authoritative guidance, the judgment sets out a succinct and complete summary of Barclays’ case at paragraphs  and .
Having set out the case law, Lady Hale concludes that ‘[t]here is nothing…in the trilogy of Supreme Court cases…to suggest that the classic distinction between employment and relationships akin or analogous to employment…and the relationship with an independent contractor…has been eroded’ .
Paragraph  is of particular importance as it sets out the test to be applied in future cases for determining the ‘first stage’ of vicarious liability (my emphasis added):
‘The question therefore is, as it always has been, whether the tortfeasor is carrying on business on his own account or whether he is in a relationship akin to employment with the defendant. In doubtful cases, the five “incidents” identified by Lord Phillips may be helpful in identifying a relationship which is sufficiently analogous to employment to make it fair, just and reasonable to impose vicarious liability…the key…will usually lie in understanding the details of the relationship. Where is it clear that the tortfeasor is carrying on his own independent business it is not necessary to consider the five incidents.’
When applying this test to Dr Bates’ situation it was clear that he was ‘in business on his own account as a medical practitioner with a portfolio of patients and clients. One of those clients was the Bank’ . There was therefore no need to apply Lord Phillips’ five factors and no vicarious liability arose.
At paragraph , Lady Hale comments on workers in the “gig” economy. Although she recognises it would be ‘tempting to align the law of vicarious liability with employment law’ it would be going ‘too far down the road to tidiness’ to do so. She does recognise, however, that asking the question of whether an individual is a particular type of “worker” for the purposes of employment law, ‘may be helpful in identifying true independent contractors’.
The decision in Barclays provides welcome clarification to the law of vicarious liability. It provides a definitive ‘book-end’ to the expansionary decisions in Christian Brothers, Cox and Armes. The brevity and concision of the judgment itself indicates the common-sense and pragmatic approach to be taken in the future: If an individual is carrying on a business on their own account (i.e. they are an independent contractor or acting under a contract for services) then no vicarious liability arises and that is the end of the enquiry. As Lady Hale states, this was, and always has been, the law.
It is only in ‘doubtful cases’ where recourse can, if necessary, be made to Lord Phillips’ five factors but in any event what is required in such cases is a ‘searching enquiry’ looking at ‘the detailed features of the relationship’ and the five factors are not the only matters to consider. Doubtful cases are those such as examined in Christian Brothers, Cox and Armes and may include workers in the gig economy.
View the full judgment here