Charity tribunal panel changes a retrograde step, says NCVO

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the umbrella body, criticised proposals for the charity tribunal to no longer automatically include non-legal representatives on the panels that make decisions on cases

Tribunals service
Tribunals service

Removing non-legal members from the charity tribunal panel would be a retrograde step and could restrict access to justice, Sir Stuart Etherington, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has warned.

Etherington made the comments in a response to a Ministry of Justice consultation on panel composition in tribunals, which opened last month.

Charity tribunal cases are typically heard before a panel of three people, including a judge. The other two panel members will usually be lay members, who are not legal experts but have relevant knowledge or experience of charities.

But the consultation paper includes a proposal to amend regulations so that panels in the first-tier tribunal, such as the charity tribunal, would consist of a single person unless the senior president of tribunals decides their presence is particularly relevant to the case.

In his response, Etherington, urged the government to reconsider the proposal, saying the NCVO was concerned it "represents a retrograde step in terms of access to justice" which would have a particularly negative impact on cases relating to charities.

"Non-legal members are a vital part of the judiciary, bringing unique skills and expertise that would not otherwise be available to the tribunal," he said.

The presence of non-legal members also helped to introduce diversity into the judging panel and make it more representative of society, he said.

He also said lay members were particularly important in cases brought by charities because they tended to focus on whether a particular decision by the Charity Commission was reasonable, rather than legal technicalities.

"The perspective of non-legal members with charity expertise and experience is therefore key to ensure a fair decision is reached," he said.

Charities bringing cases to tribunal also tended to represent themselves in order to minimise costs, he said.

"The presence of non-legal members is an important factor that helps parties feel they can do this, enabling fairer and greater access to justice," he said.

Lay members with specialist charity expertise should continue to be present at all charity hearings, he said.

The consultation is open until 24 November.

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