The Conservative peer Lord Hodgson observed in a recent Lords debate that the charity tribunal had not fulfilled the original intention that it should be a swift, cheap and user-friendly way of appealing against decisions of the Charity Commission.
It is true that there have been fewer than 20 cases in three years and that some have been elaborate affairs with multiple protagonists. But there have also been instances in which ordinary citizens have obtained decisions with more ease and speed.
The real problem has been not so much the constitution and procedures of the tribunal but the limits under which it works. As Hodgson pointed out, there is an eight-page schedule in the Charities Act 2006 that places multiple restrictions on the kinds of commission decisions the charity tribunal is permitted to review.
The early days of the tribunal were also overshadowed by a drive by the commission to refine its internal review procedure and persuade people to use that instead of the tribunal. The commission’s move towards making fewer formal decisions has also restricted the opportunities for the tribunal to become involved.
The commission has now declared that it wants to be more relaxed about challenges in the tribunal and treat it as a useful part of the process rather than something to be avoided if at all possible. But that won’t in itself be enough to allow the tribunal to realise its full potential and tackle the many important questions of charity law that have been backed up for years.
What is needed, as Hodgson suggested, is a fresh look at the restrictions on matters that the tribunal is permitted to consider. When the 2006 act was going through parliament, many MPs and peers urged the removal of all restrictions.
The Labour government’s decision to keep them all was a mistake. The coalition should take the opportunity of the review of the act, which is due later this year, to think again and remove at least some of the restrictions.