Peter Stanford: Let all trustees be 'natural people'

It's a legal term, writes our columnist, but the wider phrase holds an important lesson for us

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Legalese can be useful to impress friends when playing Scrabble - it is particularly good at mopping up those pesky Qs. But in everyday life it gets in the way of clarity and clear communication. My lawyer wife used to have an odd way of starting sentences with "notwithstanding", apparently a favourite legal standby in drafting. But she seems to have kicked that habit, to replace it with slightly too frequent recourse to "inter alia" over the breakfast table.

How the law chooses to describe things has been on my mind as I work my way through a new draft constitution for a charity I am involved with. And it was while reading pages and pages of very technical details and duties that I came across the wonderful, eye-popping sentence, apparently standard in such charitable constitutions, that every trustee of the said organisation must be a "natural person".

What extraordinary powers words have - that phrase conjures up so many possibilities. Is what is being ruled out a trustee board where the chair decides to appoint a pet Labrador as a member in order to get his or her decisions through more easily? Or - perhaps more of a current and contentious subject - is this a piece of outdated prejudice against those who have gender reassignment surgery on the questionable grounds that they are somehow not natural?

Perhaps it is an invitation for trustees to be themselves in the role - natural in the sense of unaffected, without mannerisms and without a prior agenda.

I rather like this last possibility. It could make board meetings more productive, more open to new suggestions and more fun. It would rule out all those slightly pompous colleagues who like to retreat behind accepted procedures, points of order and agendas, who insist that "there is a way in which things must be done".

But when I asked the lawyers what these words meant, I discovered a duller truth. The words signify that a trustee cannot be a company or a limited-liability partnership.

This does, however, illustrate an important point about being a trustee. Many boards now feel the need at all times either to have a lawyer as a trustee, or at least have one in attendance at meetings because of the fear of straying from the straight and narrow.

Charities, of course, need to be bound by the law, follow it and do everything in their power to uphold and champion it, since it is the best protection of our liberties. But there is a risk of going too far in this direction and becoming so hidebound by what is allowed, and what might pose a legal risk to the trustees or the charity, that the extraordinary spirit of innovation that flourishes in our sector is too often curtailed.

So let all trustees - as the letter of the law demands, but with a dash of poetic licence - be natural people. That way, we might just perform our role to the best of our abilities and the benefit of others.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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