Editorial: Is the Charity Tribunal proving pricey?

Charities will struggle to afford legal representation, says Stephen Cook

The Charity Tribunal has been slow to get under way, but is starting to attract more cases. One good sign is that some have been brought by members of the public who have wanted to challenge the decisions of the Charity Commission without the expense of going to the High Court. This is partly what the tribunal is about.

But the first final ruling by the tribunal has thrown up potentially worrying questions. Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds) was appealing against the commission's decision that it could not change its charitable objects in order to take advantage of a provision in the law that would allow its adoption service to prevent gay couples from adopting children. The tribunal backed the commission.

The case involved some complex legal issues over which there might be still more argument: the commission might challenge the grounds on which the ruling was made in its favour. But the charity has complained that using the tribunal has not been much less onerous than going to the High Court. Although the case was settled within the target time, the charity says it needed two barristers and five solicitors, and the costs have made a significant dent in its reserves.

The losing party is more likely to complain, of course, but that doesn't mean the complaint shouldn't be examined. The chair of the tribunal, Alison McKenna, has called for more lawyers to join the Chancery Bar Association's list of those offering free advice to appellants, who are all meant to be sent details of the scheme. A 'suitors' fund' to help appellants has been ruled out by the Government, and the chances of legal aid are negligible.

This question of costs deserves to be monitored closely. The whole purpose of the tribunal will be seriously undermined if it gets a reputation for being another expensive lawyers' playground, beyond the financial reach of the rank and file charity sector.

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