Profile: Alison McKenna, President, Charity Tribunal

In the judgement seat: a lawyer in her prime takes the helm at the new appeals body.

Alison McKenna
Alison McKenna

When Alison McKenna was named as the first president of the Charity Tribunal earlier this year (Third Sector Online, 14 February), her appointment was met with surprise in some quarters.

"The kind of people the position would normally appeal to are those approaching retirement or wanting career breaks," says Anne-Marie Piper, charity law specialist at Farrer & Co and chair of the Charity Law Association. "The tribunal is lucky to have got someone in her prime and with really relevant skills."

Piper says the £123,000 salary for heading the new appeals body for charities unhappy with Charity Commission decisions was considered off-putting for senior figures because for many it would represent a significant pay cut. Others were reluctant to give up private practice and "go off on a tangent" career-wise.

Piper says she doesn't know McKenna well, but points out that the nature of charity law work means practitioners rarely meet professionally. She says that what she has seen of McKenna suggests she is "a good sort".

Michael King, head of charity and education at Stone King, describes McKenna as a good and personable lawyer whose background should make her "an excellent president".

It is true that McKenna's experience on both sides of the regulatory fence would seem to make her a good candidate.

Her six years leading the charities division at Salisbury-based solicitors Wilsons - which represents about 400 sector organisations - was preceded by five years as a legal adviser at the Charity Commission. There, she was involved in the creation of the regulator's first internal decision review process, to which charities will still be required to appeal before going to the tribunal.

McKenna, who is qualified as both a solicitor-advocate and a barrister, also has tribunal experience. Since 2002, she has been president of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, the body that reviews decisions to detain people under the Mental Health Act.

Lord Justice Carnwath, the Senior President for Tribunals, said McKenna's experience would be invaluable at a time of major reform to tribunals in general.

He said: "We need tribunal leaders such as Alison who are able to combine the highest levels of specialist legal experience with the leadership qualities required both to establish the standing of the new jurisdiction and to integrate it into the new tribunal framework."

Yet some in the sector were disappointed that a judge or a more well-known charity lawyer wasn't appointed to head the tribunal.

Philip Kirkpatrick, a partner and charity law specialist at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, says he understands why some might feel the status of the tribunal is downgraded without a judge as its head, but is sure McKenna will do a fine job. "Judges are probably rather busy elsewhere," he adds.

Kirkpatrick says it will be interesting to see how the tribunal responds to any challenge to the commission's public benefit guidance on fee charging, given that McKenna represented Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust in its recent dispute with the commission over charitable status for its private patients division, Odstock Private Care.

The commission denied Odstock charitable status on the grounds that people on low incomes would not be able to afford its services (Third Sector Online, 14 December 2007). "Alison clearly has a different view from that of the commission on what the law is," says Kirkpatrick.

Other lawyers believe McKenna, who is still working at Wilsons, might face conflicts of interest until she takes up the tribunal presidency full-time on 1 June. She would currently be unable to excuse herself from decisions involving Wilsons clients - including 39 independent schools - because the tribunal's other five legally qualified and seven lay members haven't yet been appointed. The Tribunals Service insists they will be in place before the tribunal is required to take any decisions.

That legalistic figure of speech about the jury still being out seems as appropriate to McKenna's appointment as it does to the Charity Tribunal itself, but hopes on both scores appear high. As Piper says: "She is almost certainly better qualified than many potential candidates. I can't think of any reason why she shouldn't do a great job."

McKenna CV

2008: President, Charity Tribunal
2002: Partner and head of charities department, Wilsons
2002: President, Mental Health Review Tribunal
1997: Legal adviser, Charity Commission
1996: Legal adviser, Registrar of Criminal Appeals
1995: Member, Mental Health Act Commission
1993: Investigator, Commission for Local Administration in England (Local Government Ombudsman)
1988: Barrister

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