Almost a year after it was established, the Charity Tribunal has finally heard its first two cases. But many of those involved are not entirely sure they were worth waiting for.
The tribunal was billed as a quick and affordable way for charities to appeal against Charity Commission decisions. However, Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds), the first organisation to have its case heard, complained that the proceedings had been needlessly drawn out and the legal fees of £75,000 had made a significant dent in its reserves (Third Sector, 16 June).
The charity was also critical of what it saw as the commission's overly adversarial approach and the tribunal's decision to allow the Equality and Human Rights Commission to intervene in an already complex case. The result, according to Catholic Care's solicitors, Bircham Dyson Bell, was higher costs than would have been incurred in the High Court.
Part of the problem, according to the firm, was the relatively scant rules under which the tribunal operates, obliging the legal teams to spend a lot of time debating procedural points. This problem recurred during the tribunal's second case, in which a former trustee of the Sivayogam temple in London was appealing against his removal. The respective barristers spent an hour debating whether the tribunal could consider events subsequent to the commission's original decision.
The commission says the need to address such issues in the early days of the tribunal is the reason it has employed a QC in both cases. It says that it will take a "proportionate approach" to the armoury it deploys, based on "the legal and factual issues under consideration".
The resources available to the appellant do not appear to enter into the equation, and the appellant in the Sivayogam case spent more than a year searching for pro bono legal representation.
His hearing, which was due to end last Friday, resembled a criminal trial in its testy grilling of witnesses. Nor was it expected, as Third Sector went to press, to finish within the allotted seven days; the barristers were expected to have to submit their closing summaries by letter.
Perhaps some of these issues will be ironed out when the Charity Tribunal is rolled into the General Regulatory Chamber of the unified tribunals structure in September. As Bircham Dyson Bell says in its response to the Tribunal Service's consultation on the new arrangements, the rules could be beefed up and more robustly applied. The tribunal, it says, could be empowered to prevent parties causing unnecessary delay.
Meanwhile, some senior charity lawyers are concerned that the tribunal is proving to be an uneven playing field, with publicly funded commission lawyers facing charities that, even with pro bono or low-cost representation, can end up with crippling costs.