Biggest blunders: from libel to conflicts of interest

Third Sector, 28 April 2009

Legal blunders

Legal blunders

Staying on the right side of the law can be tricky. Paul Jump recalls some of the sector's most serious legal mishaps

The best way of avoiding getting into legal trouble is no doubt not to break the law in the first place, but keeping out of mischief isn't always that simple.

Media outlets are constantly haunted by the thought of falling foul of infamously unpredictable libel juries, and charities might be well advised to remember Brook's 2002 libel experience. The sexual health charity had to pay £5,000 plus legal fees to morality campaigner Victoria Gillick after it libelled her in a factsheet about teenage contraception. The factsheet said her decision to challenge the legality of government guidelines on contraception advice for under-16s contributed to the rise in teenage pregnancies during the 1980s.

Similar names are often a source of legal contention for charities. Perhaps the most famous case was that of the British Diabetic Association (now Diabetes UK), which successfully argued in 1995 that the newly formed Diabetic Society's name was so similar to its own it would confuse donors. However, the judge was heavily critical of the association for spending large sums on suing another charity.

The Charity Commission often steps in when charity law is breached. Recent cases include think tank the Smith Institute, which was deemed to have wobbled on political neutrality, and Stevenage Muslim Community Centre, where a disputed election left two separate groups claiming to be its trustees.

The commission also comes down hard on conflicts of interest - most famously in 2006, when it castigated the Tate for buying works of art from serving board members, including Chris Ofili's The Upper Room.

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