Birketts is a leading firm in the specialist practice of ecclesiastical law.
Our growing team offers advice on all aspects of the law of the Church of England to clergy, laity, church officers, parishes, dioceses and the national church institutions as well as to bishops and cathedral deans and chapters. We are committed to providing clear and affordable legal solutions in this increasingly complex area.
Birketts currently hosts three diocesan registries: James Hall is registrar of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (since 1998), and Stuart Jones is registrar of Norwich (since 2009) and London (since 2020). Frances Godden in our Charities Team is deputy registrar for London, and joint deputy registrar with James for Norwich.
The diocesan registrars and their deputies act as the legal officers of the diocese, responsible for providing general advice to clergy, parish officers, diocesan synod and its boards, committees and councils about their functions and duties. With our clerks, we prepare legal documents for clergy appointments, respond to enquiries about marriage, baptism and burial, as well as playing a key role in the administration of the faculty jurisdiction (the ecclesiastical exemption from the listed building regime) and the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003.
The complexities of the Church of England, its history, laws, structures and role as the established church can all too easily become a burden, and we try hard to minimise and share the load. Our dual aim is ‘to make things simple; to keep things legal’. In addition, we provide a ‘full service’, advising on other legal topics applicable to the church, including employment, data protection, safeguarding, property and charity law.
Experience and practice over many years has given our team a deep appreciation of the priorities of clergy and laity at a local level, as well as the pressures and strategic challenges faced by diocesan bishops, senior staff, and boards of finance and education. We address legal matters from this perspective and with the church’s mission and ministry at the forefront of our minds. We support our church clients’ priorities in an approachable and practical way, applying our experience and knowledge sympathetically to those who increasingly require prompt, clear legal advice in testing times.
Examples of our Ecclesiastical work
Much of our work falls within the scope of the diocesan registrar’s retainer (determined at national level), but we are also often asked to advise other dioceses and clergy where a conflict of interest with their own lawyers may have arisen. Similarly, we are often well-placed to offer our particular expertise on matters outside the retainer, and seek to do so at competitive rates.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of the areas of work where we offer advice to:
- ordained and lay ministers on legal matters arising in the course of their ministry, whether PCC governance, the application of the Canons, marriage law, parish registers, housing, safeguarding, terms and conditions of service (including common tenure), the faculty process, churchyard and burial matters, and day-to-day questions arising from parish life
- diocesan boards of finance and bishops’ councils and sub-committees on their statutory roles, duties and responsibilities, as well as process, constitution and governance
- diocesan boards of education, church schools and academy trusts on constitution, governance, employment matters, conversion to academy status, land and foundation trusts
- churches and dioceses in their commercial dealings including advice relating to employment, licensing, property and contractual negotiations and disputes
- churches, church-related charities, and diocesan offices on commercial and property transactions at all levels (including parsonage, glebe, church halls and diocesan board of finance land)
- PCCs and church charities about the creation and management of new and historic trusts and charity funds, governance and constitutional matters, trustees’ duties, charitable giving, legacies and fundraising
- those wishing to make a complaint, or who are subject to a complaint, under the clergy discipline regime, providing support as to process, content of complaints and responses, and advice relating to penalties and the tribunal as necessary.
Meet the team
James has worked at Birketts since 1977 and has spent his entire legal life working at the firm. A property law specialist, James also has experience with private client, commercial and charity matters, and enjoys in particular helping people understand and work within the law, as new challenges and opportunities arise. He has been a reader in his benefice for over 25 years, and sees his diocesan work as part of God’s calling. James’s registry clerk Angie has worked at Birketts since 1970, and as registry clerk since the 1980s, so she has a wealth of experience and her memory is as long as her name!
Stuart is a member of the firm’s Agricultural Team, specialising in minerals and waste when not engaged in ecclesiastical work. He was appointed registrar for Norwich in 2009, and London in 2020. Stuart aims to be pragmatic and positive, looking for ways to use the law to enable the mission of the church and the Gospel. He is ably assisted in Norwich by Jo, who has over 20 years of experience working in the legal sector. Richard, working for the London diocese, has worked as a registry clerk since 2009 and has an in-depth understanding of how the diocese operates.
Frances joined the team in 2019 after working for the diocese of Ely as deputy diocesan secretary and DAC and pastoral secretary, so she has a unique perspective of the working practices of the church as well as a keen understanding of its legal regime. A specialist charities lawyer, she works on governance and constitutional matters, church and parochial charities and trusts, church school and education matters, as well as matters of art and heritage. Frances supports both James and Stuart, deputising for Stuart as registrar when appropriate.
For all registry matters, please contact the registry clerk in the first instance. For any other enquiries, do feel free to get in touch with Stuart, James or Frances as you wish, and they will be pleased to help.