The Calcutta High Court has held that the service of a Bishop of the Church of North India (CNI), who had challenged his superannuation, is not a personal service and, therefore, cannot be held to be a contract not specifically enforceable under the Specific Relief Act.
"Although the Bishop is selected on the basis of certain special criteria from a pool of Presbyterians, it is a common order of the day to choose employees, whatever may be their position in the hierarchy of an institution, from a pool of people having certain qualifications. Competence levels vary from employee to employee, as between one Bishop and another, but the same cannot be a decisive factor in attributing a personal ingredient to the post of the Bishop. The nature of job performed by the Bishop is thus not a 'personal service' insofar as the present dispute is concerned," held Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya.
The court said so while dismissing an application moved by the Church of North India (CNI) in a suit filed by Rt Reverend Ashoke Biswas, wherein he had challenged his superannuation despite his request for extension and argued that the relationship between the Bishop and the Church is not a "master‐servant" relationship.
It is to be noted that the Bishop's case for an extension of service for one year with effect from August 19, 2017, was recommended to the Executive Committee of the CNI Synod by the Appraisal/Review Committee. Under the same agenda, it was recorded in the minutes that the age of superannuation of CNI Bishops and some others, were extended to 68 years across the board. No exception was made for Bishops working on an extension. However, by a letter dated August 22, 2018, the Synod of CNI intimated to all members of the Executive Committee and others concerned that the extended term of the opposite party expired on August 18, 2018, since the Synod did not receive any request for a further extension from Biswas.
He argued that there was no scope or requirement of asking for, or grant of, such extension, as erroneously recorded in the letter dated August 22, 2018, in view of the specific decision , as reflected from the minutes of the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Synod, to extend the tenure of service universally to 68 years.
On February 5, 2019, the Sixth Bench, City Civil Court at Calcutta, dismissed the application of the Church for rejection of the plaint.
Before the high court, the Church argued that the suit was barred by Section 14(1)(b) of the Specific Relief Act, 1963 as it sought specific performance of a contract of employment of personal nature in the garb of a declaratory suit.
According to the Specific Relief Act, 1963, Section 14(b) a contract which runs into such minute or numerous details or which is so dependent on personal qualifications of volition of the parties, or otherwise from its nature is such, that the court cannot enforce specific performance of its material terms, cannot be specifically enforced.
The Church relied on several documents to press that the service of the Bishop was personal in nature and that the nature of his post was a service coming within the ambit of a "master‐servant" relationship or an employment arising from a contract of personal nature and therefore covered under Section 14(b) of the Specific Relief Act.
It relied on the letter of appointment issued by the CNI to Biswas which used the terms "appointment" "subject always to the constitution of the said Church" and the post of Bishop was referred to as an "office".
It also relied heavily on various clauses of the constitution of the CNI, accepted and adopted at the second ordinary meeting of the Synod held on July 9‐13, 1974, and containing the service rules governing the employees including the Bishops, and said Section IV, clause 14(a) of the constitution, which provides that the Synod shall arrange for the election, appointment, transfer, discipline, suspension, termination of services and retirement of Bishops and Assistant Bishops and when various clauses are read together, shows that the Bishop is nothing but an employee of the Church and is governed by the terms and conditions of a contract for personal service.
Biswas, on the other hand, contended that a Bishop is elected under the constitution of CNI and the relationship between the Bishop and the Church is not a "master‐servant" relationship.
He argued that there was no scope for him to request for extension of service after the executive committee recorded that the age of superannuation of CNI Bishops and some others were extended to 68 years across the board.
Relying on his appointment letter dated June 1, 2008, wherein it was mentioned that Biswas had been appointed as Bishop following an election and the powers conferred on him would always be subject to the constitution of the CNI, Biswas argued that the office of the Bishop is not one which is either dependent on personal qualification or runs into minute or numerous details which cannot be enforced specifically by the court.
"As regards volition, the concept of 'master‐servant' relationship is now obsolete and neither legally or socially a tenable concept. the length or condition of the post of a Bishop is not dependent on the whims or volition of the petitioner but is guided by the constitution of the Church which has a statutory flavour," he submitted while relying on opinion of Justice PN Bhagwati in Executive Committee of Vaish Degree College, Shamli and others vs. Lakshmi Narain and others [(1976) 2 SCC 58], which opened up the concept of 'personal service'.
The Church, on the other hand, argued that its constitution does not have a statutory flavour and is not a statute by any stretch of the imagination.
Court looks beyond ornamental paraphernalia
The court examined the cardinal characteristics of the appointment of Biswas as Bishop by the CNI and said, "As such, undoubtedly the Bishop works as an employee of the petitioner and is subject to all rigours and benefits attributable to such employment. The religious hierarchy of the petitioner and the spiritual status of the Bishop in such hierarchy could not be an indicator of whether the Bishop is an 'employee' of the petitioner or not. The status of the Bishop vis‐à‐vis the petitioner, inasmuch as the former's function at the Church is concerned, is governed by the provisions of the constitution, which admittedly regulates the Bishop's position and the letter of appointment of the Bishop and the communication by the Bishop for extension of his service. Although the said constitution does not have 'statutory flavour' or statutory sanction, it is admittedly the governing charter of the entitlements and duties of the Bishop as an employee, which substitutes the fiat of a 'master' in a master‐servant relationship and makes it mandatory that the constitutional provisions, and not the volition or diktat of the parties, are followed in construing the terms and conditions of service.
"An additional factor which has to be considered is the body of averments of the opposite party himself in his plaint. The document unerringly indicate that the Bishop was an employee of the petitioner. The terms' installation' and 'consecration' merely comprise of ornamental paraphernalia preceding and attending the appointment of the Bishop, which may have spiritual connotations but have no role to play in construing the nature of the service. The ceremonious nature of such expressions and/or the activities associated therewith cannot be equated with an elevation of the Bishop's post to a pedestal higher than that of an employee.
"Whatever may be the status of the Bishop in the spiritual hierarchy of the Church, the same cannot be a factor to be considered while deciding the issue at hand provisions of the constitution of the petitioner, which govern the appointment of the Bishop, contains several indicators that the service was governed by the rules framed, either by the Executive Committee, or the provisions of the constitution itself.
"The petitioner's argument that since the Executive Committee could decide on the fate of the service of Bishop, there exists a master‐servant relationship between the parties, cannot be accepted. It is not the body of persons comprising the Executive Committee or the petitioner itself (which is, in any event, a juristic person) who decides the fate of the opposite party at their whims. The rules framed by the Executive Committee under the authority granted by the constitution of the petitioner and the provisions of the constitution are the determinants of whether the Bishop's service could be revoked.
"Despite master‐servant relationship being no longer the whims and fancy of the employer in dealing with the employee as it used to be in the hoary past, there still has to be an ingredient of the volition of the employer and a personal nature of service to invoke the bar stipulated in Section 14(1)(b). Since in the present case, the recalcitrance of the opposite party is not an issue at all, but the bone of the contention being the superannuation age of the opposite party, the concepts of master-servant relationship and personal service cannot be imported to define the relationship between the parties.
"Moreover, the service of the Bishop with the petitioner is not dependent merely on the volition of the parties and the nature of service rendered by the Bishop is not of a personal nature. No personal skill or personal ingredient, exceptional from all other jobs, is present as an element of the Bishop's functions," said Justice Bhattacharyya.
The court, however, added a word of caution as to the interpretation of what constitutes personal service.
"However, a word of caution has to be incorporated here, as to the interpretation of personal service not being a uniform concept in case of employment. The various components of a service which come into play and the nature of the dispute involved in legal action are the true determinants of whether such component or dispute involves a personal aspect of the service. There can be various shades and components of a job, some being personal in nature and involving the volition of the parties and others governed by the general rules or laws/bye‐laws governing all such employees uniformly. For the former, a job/post can be a 'personal service' while for the latter, not so.
"As far as the present matter is concerned, as held above, the service of the Bishop is not a personal service as contemplated in the decisions rendered on Section 14(1)(b) of the Specific Relief Act, 1963," he concluded.
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