Finding the Methodist Way through the myriad of clauses and nuances in the Standing Orders can lead one easily astray.  The most difficult journeys are those which appear to be similar or even identical to the way of life outside the church.


One of the most deceptive of these exists at the very beginning of inquiries by a Connexional inquiry team.  It is called the “initial stage”. The wording of the relevant Standing Order is so complicated that injustice may be done -  in all innocence.


Many people, either complainants or respondents, may later find themselves angry with the system of complaints if, in the first flush of argument,  they fail to keep an eye on the leader of the connexional panel of inquiry during the initial stages of a complaints procedure. They should know that the initial stage is probably the most dangerous for both the respondent and complainant involved. The reason for this is that the rules for the initial stage seem so easy to follow.


Most of the people who have written the Standing Orders are lawyers. In their day jobs they are accustomed to working for a client – and will naturally defend their client above all else. Whilst protecting their client, they often interpret the law of the land in a manner which helps their clients – sometimes above the call for justice in a case. It becomes a habit. That is normal in an adversarial system of justice.


As a consequence of this habit, the Standing Orders regarding the initial stage of the complaints process are weighted towards the interests of the Church. There are few clear safeguards for the people involved in a complaints procedure. Those safeguards must be winkled out of the verbiage.


What is termed the “initial stage” (or ‘initial steps’)  of a complaint inquiry is covered in Standing Order 1123. It was introduced partly to avoid wasting valuable Church time by considering ill-researched or facetious complaints. It is a “sieve” – sifting the wheat from the chaff.


This is something that lawyers understand well – it is what they  term in their own profession the establishment of a “prima facie” case. The essential use of establishing a “prima facie” case in the judicial process is to decide whether it is worth carrying on with a dispute.


In general law, a prima facie case is a cause of action or defence that is sufficiently established by a party's evidence to justify a verdict in his or her favour, provided such evidence is not rebutted by the other party. In other words – “if this evidence is true and reliable, then this party should win the case and it is for the other side to now refute or destroy this evidence”


The Methodist Church complaints process did not need to introduce such a stage in its proceedings. It might simply have a panel of inquiry to take up the complaint and the response, and work forwards from that. However, the writers of the Standing Orders followed a system that they know well and which is ‘tried and trusted’. A “prima facie” stage may be a good idea -  for, as with the criminal  system, it cuts costs.


However, the Standing Orders of the Church, or its laws, are not the same as the general law of the land  - so the analogy, equating one with the other,  may actually be a false one. Legal procedure in our courts is not the same as the procedures of the Methodist Church complaints system.


Indeed, it is questionable whether the Standing Orders which limit the initial investigation are fully compliant with the Standing Order which requires the system of the balance of probabilities to be used. A court of law which operates a system of the balance of probabilities does so to achieve finality. The initial investigation in the complaints system is not attempting to find finality, merely a case reliable to require an answer; it does not ‘try the case’. It merely looks for reliable evidence of a charge or complaint. At this stage, the respondent's case in defence is of lesser importance.


Most people are aware that in criminal law the consideration of the prima facie case is conducted by the Crown Prosecution Service. The case will come from the Police in documentary form, presenting evidence of guilt and of potential innocence. Video from CCTV is also becoming common these days, but it is considered to be a part of the documentary evidence.  


The CPS is tasked by the Ministry of Justice to consider whether or not there is a better than 50% chance of a conviction. If there is ‘a case to answer’ , then the  case will go ahead. If not, the CPS may either dismiss the case or send it back to the police for further investigation. Note that here, the defence case is of lesser importance. A man is innocent until proved guilty, so it is up to the prosecution to prove its case.


There are two main questions which the CPS put to the evidence presented to them by the police – is this admissible in court and is this evidence reliable?   There are rules of evidence against which they can assess admissibility – and as for reliability the police are tasked with producing reliable evidence – it is a part of their professional duties.


In the Methodist Church Standing Orders there are rules about admissibility – but there is no back-up from any office which helps with reliability – and that is where the system begins to break down.


S.O. 1123 (12) states limits of the initial stage of a connexional complaints inquiry :


In taking the initial steps provided for by this Standing Order, the complaints team must not come to any conclusion on the facts or merits of the complaint except to the extent necessary to reach the decisions required.”


The “decisions required” are the decisions on evidence about whether to proceed with the complaint or not. In other words "is there a case to answer?"


In  order to consider the admissibility of a complaint, sorting “the wheat from the chaff”,  Standing Orders impose, in effect, a list of questions for the team leader to answer in order to reach a conclusion.


Most of these questions concern ensuring that complaints are dealt with by the correct procedures.  In the main this means asking “is this a matter for “curtailment of employment” – or is it a “failure to fulfil obligations”? Such matters are dealt with elsewhere in the Church, not in the complaints system.


There are other considerations concerning admissibility. One is whether the complaint has been dealt with before. Another is whether the incidents involved happened so long ago that evidence will necessarily be shaky.


It is in questions beyond this that the problems can begin to occur, for the leader enters an area in which the facts and merit of the complaint may come into dispute.


During the initial stage, the team leader must consider whether the complaint is actually a proper complaint. The leader of the panel is required to consider “whether the complaint objects to the words, acts or omissions of another member of or person holding office in the Church and requesting that action be taken as a consequence.” 


To judge this, he or she must consider whether the person being complained about is of sufficient standing in the Church to be reasonably seen as being of any significance in connection with the words, acts or omissions that are detailed in the complaint. In other words – is the person being complained about really that important to the Church?


How can  a team leader do this without either seeing the person in question or asking someone trustworthy who knows that person?


An even more difficult decision awaits the team leader. This comes from SO 1123 (7ii) which states that a complaint may be summarily dismissed if:


“ the matters complained of are so trivial that further steps would be inappropriate”


This clause forces the leader of a panel of inquiry during the initial stage - before the full panel sits  - to seek out evidence not in the complaint. For what constitutes “triviality”?


How does one assess whether a complaint is “trivial” without looking further into the evidence behind a complaint to establish whether it is truthful or not? Such consideration would no doubt include some assessment of the character, the capabilities and the seriousness of the complainant – and indeed perhaps of the respondent. Such subjective judgments on the triviality of a complaint can be dangerous. A more forensic approach might be preferable.


Investigating the triviality of a complaint can quickly lead to an investigation of the participants – in particular the complainant. And that, according to SO 1123, is not allowed during the initial stage.


Seeking the level of triviality has led to a worrying trend. The leader of the panel may independently look into the facts or merits of the complaint in some depth, weighing one side against another and either contacting persons such as District Chairs in order to hear a view on the matter -  or simply coming down on one side on new factual evidence discovered in the search for the level of triviality of the complaint.


The specific judgement in the initial stage, required in Standing Orders,  is the possible triviality of the complaint. It is not, as some may think, a judgement on the justification for the complaint.  That judgement is to come later.


It is a lack of appreciation of this distinction  which may prompt leaders of inquiry panels into going further into probative evidence supporting or opposing a complaint, rather than the simple judgement on triviality.


There has been a worrying trend in recent years to use this particular clause in Standing Orders to conduct a detailed inquiry into a complaint. The leader of the panel becomes the single judge and provides the other two members with something of a “fait accompli”.


Having established that the complaint is indeed a complaint within the meaning of SO 1100 and that it cannot be properly considered in some other context, then all the leader should do is establish whether the complaint passes the “triviality test”.


Extensive research is not necessary to establish the level of triviality. The only questions to pose are ‘is this serious? Is this important? Is this significant? And perhaps above all – does this concern a breach of Standing Orders?


The danger lies in the fact that any intrusion by the team leader into areas of evidence such as the character of either participant may produce further evidence which should really be for the consideration of the full inquiry team, not simply its leader. And yet he will inevitably take it into account when forming his report.


A common occurrence at such times is when one of the persons involved in a complaint – or the friend of one of the sides – interferes with the system by sending “helpful” information to the leader of the panel during the initial stage of the procedure.


This can sometimes be disguised as evidence of “triviality”. However, it may actually be one-sided evidence of bad character, suggesting that the complainant or the respondent has done something shameful in the past, or some small matter, such as handling Church maintenance, which is largely a matter of opinion or a political argument.


There is no allowance in Standing Orders to allow this practice – but equally, there is no rule that forbids it  - and once such a mistake is made, once such independent action is taken by a team leader, as a single judge, the damage to the balance of the inquiry may be irreparable. The leader may well have gone too far  and reached a conclusion on the facts or merits of the complaint  which is more than  the extent necessary to reach the decisions required.


The situation is similar to the introduction of a person’s criminal record during a trial. Such is not allowed because it prejudices the jury or the judge with matters not relevant to the case under consideration.


This delving into the background to the evidence of both sides may be most dangerous when the team leader decides to “get a feel about the case” by looking into the character of the complainant.


SO 1123 (12) specifically outlaws such action by the leader of the complaints team: 


“In taking the initial steps provided for by this Standing Order, the complaints team must not come to any conclusion on the facts or merits of the complaint except to the extent necessary to reach the decisions required.”


This limitation may  not simply exist in order to  get to the heart of the complaint, but may also exist in order to save time. Standing Orders have specific time limits for the consideration of complaints. For example SO 1123 (11) states:


“ The lead member’s initial assessment and, if clause (8) above applies, the decision of the other team members must be made within three weeks of the date on which the lead member receives the documents or as soon as possible thereafter.”


Perhaps most importantly, SO 1124 (17) states:


“The complaints team’s full consideration of the complaint must be completed within two months of the date on which the lead member receives the documents or as soon as possible thereafter.”


There appears to be no justification for these time limits. They may produce a lack of thoroughness in the investigation to reach a just decision. However, they produce a form of order to the proceedings and are convenient to the connexional panel and to the Church.  However, they may cause injustice and thus be contrary to SO 1100.


Even when it is done within the specified time limits, the ability of the leader of the inquiry panel to go beyond a paper assessment and investigate the behaviour or character of a complainant or respondent is limited by other Standing Orders.


 S.O. 1123 (4) is  qualified by S.O. 1123 (12) which states:


In taking the initial steps provided for by this Standing Order, the complaints team must not come to any conclusion on the facts or merits of the complaint except to the extent necessary to reach the decisions required.”



This clause is the basic position. However, further examination of S.O. 1123 and 1124  shows that the panel actually has no right whatsoever to investigate the complainant during the initial stage of a complaint process.


S.O. 1124 (para 1 ) states


As soon as possible after it becomes clear that the complaint is to be fully considered, the complaints team must agree what further steps are to be taken to investigate the complaint. They may subsequently agree that additional steps must be taken or that certain steps are no longer required.”


The key words in the above are “after” and “further steps”.


Among those further steps “which may be taken”  is clause (4) which allows the panel to investigate the complainant.


It seems clear that the intention of Conference was that once it was established that there was cause for a full investigation, the inquiry panel should initiate the second stage.   Only at this point might “further steps” be taken. Those further steps include investigating the complainant.


Conference is not foolish. Standing Orders are written after careful and wise consideration of the wording and order of the rulings.


Ill-consideration of these Standing Orders can lead a complaints team into dangerous areas.  It seems clear from the wording of the above standing orders that Conference did not wish there to be any investigation of the complainant (and presumably also the respondent) during the initial stage of the inquiry.


In summary, according to S.O. 1124, clause 4 cannot be triggered until the requirements of clause 2 have been complied with. The word “after” is used deliberately– as mentioned above. The clauses are numbered, as they are, for a reason.


In other words, steps to  investigate the complainant cannot take place in the initial stage. It can only be done after it becomes clear that the complaint is to be fully considered.


Any other reading of these clauses might produce unexpected and unjust situations. What if, for example the initial stage listed three reasons why the team should undertake a full investigation - two points from the complaint – and one added by the leader about the apparent bad behaviour by the complainant?


What would happen if the two reasons emanating from the complaint then prove to be so baseless that they could be eliminated immediately when a full investigation took place?


The full investigation might still continue with the third reason – a simple assessment of the character of the complainant by the leader of the team.  This hypothesis would mean that a full investigation might take place simply because there was a desire by the leader of the panel to investigate the complainant, no matter the strength of the complaint he or she  was making.


The panel’s final report might centre on the fact that they had found that there was no merit in the complainant’s case, but that there had been merit in investigating and accusing  the complainant. Indeed, the person making the complaint might end the process by being accused of bullying.


This is not what Conference intended.


The powers of the team leader during the initial stage are therefore severely limited. He or she cannot investigate the complainant. The corollary of this is that the leader cannot therefore investigate the respondent. Triviality and the status of either party in the dispute must therefore be conducted by other means.


Those other means can be quite dangerous to the fairness of the process – for the leader might decide to ask other people in the district where either the complainant or the respondent lives. Such witnesses may well be biased against one side or the other.


The fault often lies in the nature and wording of the complaint presented to a team. Complainants should bear in mind the limitations of the initial stage and provide evidence that:


a) The case is not a trivial one – they should detail why it is important to the Church.


b) Demonstrate that there is sufficient evidence available to make the complaint worthy of further examination.


c) Try to determine for the benefit of the team leader exactly which Standing Order the respondent has breached.


d) Mention the standing of the person being complained about with regard to the church. Is that person actually a member of the Church? If so does that person have any ranking in the Church?


e) Explain why this is not a matter for curtailment, nor for a charge of failure to fulfil obligations.







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