Withers leads Scientology marriage appeal as revenue growth slows

Withers was in the front line of a controversial Supreme Court challenge to the legal definition of religion in England today, acting for a woman wishing to marry her fiancé in the Church of Scientology.

The Supreme Court hearing comes as Withers announced a more than 4 per cent slump in profit per equity partner (PEP) despite increasing revenues for the last year.

Margaret Robertson
Margaret Robertson

Blackstone Chambers human rights silk Anthony Lester QC has been instructed by trust and succession partner Paul Hewitt to lead the case in the Supreme Court. The team are seeking to overturn a 40-year-old precedent and allow Scientologists to marry in religious ceremonies on the church’s premises.

Hewitt’s client, Louisa Hodkin, is challenging a High Court ruling handed down at the end of last year backing a decision from the Registrar of General Births, Deaths and Marriages (20 December 2012).

In that ruling, Mr Justice Ouseley found that a building can be used to conduct religious marriages only if it is also registered as a place of meeting for religious worship under legislation dating back to 1855.

However, the judge left the door open for further challenge, noting that the 40-year-old precedent – the case of Segerdal, which ruled that a Scientology chapel was not a place of religious worship – should be “reconsidered”.

The judge said: “I regard the definition of worship [in the earlier judgment] as being problematic. It may be that now a different approach to ‘religious worship’ from that…would and should be adopted.”

Withers successfully applied to “leapfrog” the CoA and take the matter directly to the Supreme Court.

James Strachan QC of 39 Essex Street was instructed by Home Office solicitors for the registrar, and the judges hearing the case are Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Toulson.

Meanwhile, the firm reported a global turnover of £117.8m for 2012/13, an increase of 4 per cent on last year’s revenue of £113.3m. But that was a significant slow down compared to revenue growth of 12.4 per cent in 2011/12 and 8.7 per cent in 2010/11 (18 July 2012).

Withers’ PEP and net profit figures have also been on a roller coaster, with both falling in 2012/13 after record highs last year. In 2011/12 profit per equity partner jumped up 19.5 per cent to £386,000 before dropping 4.1 per cent to £370,000 this year. Net profit dropped by 7 per cent, after rocketing by almost a quarter to £24.2m last year.