Keep it legal: Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008

The Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 is finally on the statute book. This brings some major changes to charity law in Northern Ireland, a separate legal jurisdiction within the UK, and will also have some relevance for national and international charities operating in the province. It should put the charity sector in Northern Ireland on a firm foothold for the future.

The act establishes a new Charity Commission for Northern Ireland. It also sets up a Charity Tribunal and instigates a register for Northern Ireland charities. There will be a separate registration process for non-Northern Ireland charities that are operating for charitable purposes in or from Northern Ireland. They will have to produce financial statements and statements of activities relating to their operations in or from Northern Ireland.

The act creates new charitable purposes and, as in the rest of the UK, there will be a public benefit hurdle to overcome. The new commission will be obliged to conduct a public consultation about this.

The legislation also creates reporting obligations for charities in the form of accounts, annual reports and annual returns, and makes changes to the law on fundraising in Northern Ireland. The new commission will oversee the reporting requirements of Northern Ireland charities and will have significant powers, particularly to institute inquiries.

A provision relating to designated religious status reduces the level of commission scrutiny to which religious charities that meet certain criteria will be subject. However, all will still have to register and file accounts and reports.

The act also makes provision for charitable incorporated organisations, and I watch the consultation process currently under way in England and Wales with interest.

It will be a major challenge to understand how three legal jurisdictions in the UK will deal with charities that operate nationally. The interaction of the Northern Ireland commission with the OSCR and the Charity Commission will be of particular interest.

 - Jenny Ebbage heads the charities unit at Cleaver Fulton Rankin, Belfast, which specialises in charity law in Northern Ireland.

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