Editorial: Charities can achieve more by improving law than by breaking it

It's clear that one of the liveliest parts of last week's Charity Law Conference was the debate about whether charities should break the law.

The first surprise was perhaps the strength of the vote before the debate began: 57 per cent of delegates thought that charities should be prepared to break the law, while 30 per cent thought they should not. The second surprise came at the end of the debate, when feeling had swung significantly round the opposite way, with only 39 per cent saying law-breaking was all right, and 55 per cent saying it wasn't. It's rare that a debate can alter people's views so decisively, and the change is presumably due at least in part to the quality of the arguments. 

No charity would be wise to advocate or condone breaking the law, no matter how misguided or repressive it considered that law to be. Such an open abandonment of constitutional principles would be likely to mean they would lose their charitable status and tax advantages, attract the attention of the prosecuting authorities and run the risk of alienating public opinion and supporters. Even campaigning groups that are not registered charities rarely go so far as to openly advocate or condone breaking the law, and few put themselves at risk of committing anything more serious than minor public order offences and some collateral criminal damage.

One of the great strengths of charities is their role in advocating changes in the law and influencing legislation. They have been the driving force behind many important changes in the law, ranging from animal welfare to human rights. They often act as advisers and information banks for sympathetic legislators. The rules governing the advocacy of political change by charities, providing it is in pursuit of their charitable purposes, have recently been clarified and to some extent relaxed in the revised version of the Charity Commission's CC9 guidelines. This is likely to strengthen further the vital role of charities in the process of improving and revising legislation. They can achieve much more through their efforts to change laws than through breaking them.

It's also true that some of the most important advances in society have come about as a result of law-breaking; freedom of association in trade unions and female suffrage are perhaps the most notable examples. Charities have contributed to, built on, developed and profited from the achievements of non-charitable campaigning groups whose supporters have changed the law by defying it, sometimes losing their lives or freedom. Most burning issues have both militant and constitutional adherents, who are often in conflict, though heading in the same direction. Charities are inevitably bound up in debate about how to achieve desirable progress, and have to take care not to compromise their position of trust with the public.

Then there are the dilemmas of real life, often faced by individuals within organisations rather than by organisations as such. What, for example, should the duty manager of a hostel run by a charity for refugees do when a penniless, pregnant, failed asylum seeker, due to be deported but on the run, turns up on the doorstep? Call the police? What are charities to do if their charitable purposes and the needs of their beneficiaries are in conflict with the law, especially if it is a law they have resisted?

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