Mohinder Singh Khaira and Others v Daljit Singh Shergill and Others

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtSupreme Court
JudgeLord Sumption,Lord Hodge,Lord Neuberger,Lord Clarke,Lord Mance
Judgment Date11 June 2014
Neutral Citation[2014] UKSC 33
Date11 June 2014

[2014] UKSC 33

THE SUPREME COURT

Trinity Term

On appeal from: [2012] EWCA Civ 983

before

Lord Neuberger, President

Lord Mance

Lord Clarke

Lord Sumption

Lord Hodge

Shergill and others
(Appellants)
and
Khaira and others
(Respondents)

Appellants

Mark Herbert QC David Halpern QC Prof Satvinder Singh Juss

(Instructed by Addlestone Keane Solicitors)

Respondents

Mark Hill QC James Quirke

(Instructed by Seymours Solicitors LLP; D C Kaye Solicitors; Bindmans LLP)

Heard on 19 and 20 February 2014

Lord Neuberger, Lord Sumption AND Lord Hodge (with whom Lord Mance and Lord Clarke agree)

1

This appeal arises out of divisions which have arisen within a Sikh sect associated with three Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in Bradford, Birmingham and High Wycombe. It raises two questions arising out of the trusts on which the Gurdwaras are held. The questions are (i) the extent to which it is open to trustees to alter, or restrict, the terms of the trusts upon which they hold property, and (ii) the extent to which the court can and should refuse to determine issues of religion or religious belief in legal proceedings. The Court of Appeal confined itself to issue (ii). They decided that the whole dispute was non-justiciable and ordered a permanent stay of the entire proceedings, thus making it unnecessary to deal with issue (i).

The factual background
2

On 22 April 1987, fourteen men, all Sikhs living in or near Birmingham, attended a meeting at which certain "decisions were passed unanimously" according to a memorandum ("the April 1987 memorandum"). An unchallenged translation of the April 1987 memorandum records that it was decided that:

"under the guardianship of His Holiness Brahamgiani, revered 108 Sant Maharaj Baba Gian Singh Ji of Nirmal Kutia Johal, and on his orders, wishes and instructions, another Gurdwara … be established in the Midlands area of England for the benefit and forever success of the Sikh faith, brotherhood and the devotee congregations …".

His Holiness there referred to was the then holder of the office of Holy Saint, and known for the purpose of these proceedings as "the First Holy Saint". The First Holy Saint had succeeded the original Holy Saint (who had died in 1971), as the religious head of the abode of saints at Nirmal Kutia in the Indian village of Johal. The memorandum also recorded that it was decided that "another large gathering be called" on 17 May 1987.

3

A meeting duly took place on 17 May 1987, which was attended by twenty-eight men, and which resulted in decisions which were recorded in another memorandum ("the May 1987 memorandum"). This memorandum, again in an unchallenged translation, records a number of decisions. First, that, "under the Supreme Authority of" the First Holy Saint (referred to in the memorandum as "His Holiness"), a Gurdwara "be established in the Midlands area", which was to be "similar to" a Gurdwara which had been acquired in Bradford in 1982. Secondly, that "this Gurdwara … be established in Birmingham under the discipline and headship of His Holiness". Thirdly, that the Gurdwara "and all services shall always be conducted according to the orders and wishes of His Holiness". The fourth decision was that only adherents "of Sikh faith" could be a trustee or on the management committee. Fifthly, it was decided to "look for a building for the … Gurdwara… and to purchase it according to orders from His Holiness". Finally, a committee of nineteen men was recorded as "formed to serve".

4

Meanwhile, donations were being collected from devotees, and a property at Oldbury, Birmingham ("the Birmingham Gurdwara") was found and, on 17 September 1987, it was inspected by the First Holy Saint. According to a memorandum ("the September 1987 memorandum") of that date, he "gave his approval with delight" to its purchase. The memorandum records that he "gave the responsibility of managing [the Birmingham] Gurdwara" to five men, of whom four, the first, second and third respondents and Tarlochan Singh ("the original trustees") were described as "trustees". The September 1987 memorandum also stated that "only Maharaj Sri 108 Sant Maharaj Baba Gian Singh Ji —Nirmal Kutia, Johlan —will have the authority to change any trustee, management member and the whole management system of the Gurdwara Sahib in any form at any time".

5

The Birmingham Gurdwara was then purchased with a combination of the donations collected from devotees and loans, which were subsequently discharged from further donations. The Birmingham Gurdwara was transferred to the original trustees by a transfer dated 19 November 1987 ("the transfer"). The transfer referred to the original trustees as "Trustees of the Gurdwara Amrit Parchar Dharmik Diwan (UK) Birmingham" (to whom we will refer generically as "the Birmingham trustees"), and to the property transferred as "know[n] for identification only as an Office Block but which is to be known as a Sikh Temple". The transfer contained a covenant by the original trustees with the transferor that for ten years the property would not be used other than "as a Temple, Synagogue or Church".

6

On 15 January 1991, the original trustees executed a Deed of Trust ("the 1991 Deed"), under which they declared in clause 1 that they were the duly appointed trustees of the Gurdwara Amrit Parchar Dharmik Diwan (UK) Birmingham, which they defined as "the Society" (Amrit Parchar refers to a form of baptism). The Society was described in clause 1 as "a religious organisation preaching and practising the Sikh faith, following the teachings of [the First Holy Saint] resident at Nirmal Kutia … ('the Saint") or his successor". Clause 2 referred to the Birmingham Gurdwara (defined as "the property"), and in clause 3 the original trustees declared that they held it "as Trustees for the Society to be dealt with as may be directed in writing by the Saint or his successor". In Clause 4, the original trustees declared that the trust for sale on which the property was held would not be exercised "without the consent in writing and the direction of the Saint or his successor". Clause 5 empowered "the Saint or his successor" "at any time … [to] remove the Birmingham trustees or any of them and appoint new trustees". Clause 7 provided that, in the event of the Society being "wound up or ceasing to exist", the property and all other assets in the hands of the Birmingham trustees "shall be held in trust for the Saint or his successor".

7

At around this time, on 24 February 1991, the Constitution of the Society ("the 1991 constitution") was drawn up and signed by a number of men including the first, second, third and fourth respondents. The 1991 constitution applied to the communities which worshipped at both the Bradford and the Birmingham Gurdwaras. It described the Society's aims and objects as including "[t]o preach Sikhism, doctrine of Holy Shri Guru Granth Sahib and teachings of Ten Gurus from Guru Nanak Dev Ji to Guru Gobind Singh Ji", as well as others, including encouraging "ceremonial baptism", discouraging "the use of alcohol and smoking", encouraging Panjabi education, and establishing a Sikh information centre and libraries. Clause 10 of the 1991 constitution stated that changes in the Society's management committee could only be made by "[the first Holy Saint] or his successor", and, at the end of the constitution there was added "PS Word 'successor' in the above text means Sant Harbhajan Singh Ji (Brakat)", who was at that time the assistant to the first Holy Saint (hereinafter "Sant Harbhajan Ji").

8

On 20 September 1993, a property was acquired at High Wycombe ("the Wycombe Gurdwara") with the assistance of donations and loans from devotees. The transfer was made to the sixth and eighth appellants and the fifth and sixth respondents ("the Wycombe trustees"), who were described as holding the property "upon the trusts declared by a Deed of even date herewith". By that Deed, the Wycombe trustees declared that they held the Wycombe Gurdwara "in accordance with [the Society's] constitution". At that time, or shortly afterwards, the 1991 constitution was replaced by a new constitution ("the 1993 constitution") which applied to the communities which worshipped at the Bradford, Birmingham and Wycombe Gurdwaras ("the three Gurdwaras"). The 1993 constitution was in very similar terms to the 1991 constitution and, in particular, it included the same clause 10 and "PS" as the 1991 constitution.

9

On 31 August 2001, the First Holy Saint appointed the third appellant as one of the Birmingham trustees in place of Tarlochan Singh. Three months later, the First Holy Saint died and was succeeded by Sant Harbhajan Ji, who died a few months later in March 2002. It is the appellants' pleaded case that, on 20 March 2002, the ninth appellant, Saint Sant Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj ("Sant Jeet Singh"), was then recognised as the head of Nirmal Kutia Johal in India, and thereby became the Third Holy Saint, as confirmed by a formal written resolution signed by 24 saints and eleven dignitaries. On 13 July 2003, at a joint meeting of the management committees of the three Gurdwaras, Sant Jeet Singh was recognised as the Third Holy Saint, in a resolution signed by a number of men, including the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth respondents.

10

On 31 December 2003, a revised Constitution ("the 2003 constitution") for the three Gurdwaras was agreed in Nirmal Kutia, and it was signed by various men, including the six respondents. This 2003 constitution was quite similar to the 1991 and 1993 constitutions, but it had somewhat more aims and a few further provisions. It referred to the consent of Sant Jeet Singh "and his successor" being required for certain changes in personnel, and contained a "NOTE" at the end stating that "[t]he word 'successor' … means His Holiness Sant Baba Jaspal Singh …".

11

New trust deeds were...

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3 books & journal articles
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