Editorial: Charity law and common sense

A long-running row in leafy Surrey highlights the labyrinthine complexities of charity and trust law, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

Inquiring into the saga of Dunsfold village school, which we do in our analysis today, is like peeling an onion: removing one layer just reveals another, and your eyes begin to smart with pain and frustration.

Here is a historic building falling into disrepair while the parish council, the Church of England Diocese of Guildford and the Charity Commission wrangle about what should happen to it, with the parochial church council, the local education and planning authorities and the Department for Education hovering on the sidelines.

Some of the disagreements, inevitably, concern money. But at the heart lie the labyrinthine complexities of charity and trust law. Which trusts govern the use of the building? What can it be used for - education generally, or just education "not incompatible with the principles of the Church of England"? What about other community purposes, or wider general ones? Can it be sold, or only leased? What can the proceeds be used for? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

The saga has gone on for seven years already and is beginning to look like a modern rewrite of the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House. Some of the protagonists will perhaps die before any resolution is reached, and it is tempting to conclude that the law in this instance is an ass.

The next stage comes in November when the parish council's appeal against the Charity Commission's most recent pronouncements is heard by the charity tribunal. The tribunal was set up to allow rapid, low-cost access to justice on charity law and the number of cases of ordinary citizens making use of it, as here, is increasing.

The strict function of the tribunal is to lay down the law. But will that just remove another layer of the onion? What is required here, surely, is something more than that - the banging together of heads and a greater measure of goodwill and common sense.

- Read analysis

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