Editorial: Don't knock the charity tribunal

Despite its teething problems it's a valuable backstop, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

The charity tribunal has just accepted its fourth case, in which a local resident is appealing against the Charity Commission's apparent intention to allow Romsey Abbey to continue using nearby charitable land as a car park.

The land's charitable purpose is public recreation, but the local council that acts as sole trustee supports the abbey.

This is very much the kind of case the tribunal was intended for. Before it was brought into being by the Charities Act 2006, the resident would, to all intents and purposes, have had no redress. He could have asked the commission for an internal review of its decision, but after that the next stop would have been the High Court, with all the attendant, and often prohibitive, expense. The commission was, in practice, the final arbiter in many instances, which is why the tribunal was introduced.

There has been some comment on the fact that the tribunal has attracted so few cases, despite being resourced to handle 50 a year. Such comment is no doubt music to the ears of the commission, which is not perceived in legal circles as a fan of the tribunal. The commission revised its internal review process before the tribunal started work, no doubt wanting to minimise appeals against its decisions as well as improve its service to dissatisfied customers.

The tribunal has also attracted criticism for its handling of the Catholic Care adoption case, when it had to struggle with important matters of public policy involving the Attorney General and the Equality and Human Rights Commission as well as the Charity Commission. That case has just been referred back to the commission by the High Court, with some unfavourable comment attached.

The commission plays up its cuddly side, but it is also a regulator with swingeing powers. The tribunal is a relatively accessible and inexpensive backstop against the unjust use of those powers, and despite teething problems should be fostered and developed.

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