Analysis: charity tribunal satisfies appellants who represented themselves

A case in the fledgling tribunal last week indicated that it is capable of providing low-cost access to justice for those seeking to challenge decisions by the Charity Commission. Paul Jump reports

Alison McKenna, principal judge of the tribunal
Alison McKenna, principal judge of the tribunal

A significant moment for the charity tribunal came last week when its first verdict in a case involving appellants who were not legally represented gave them a partial victory.

In the tribunal's previous case, a trustee of the Sivayogam temple in south London overturned his disqualification, but he was represented by a pro bono barrister.

One aim of the tribunal is low-cost access to justice for those who cannot afford High Court action, and retired Dartford residents Derek Maidment and Lennox Ryan aired their grievances in person. They objected to the Charity Commission's scheme to rectify Dartford Borough Council's sale, in breach of trust, of a section of charitable parkland to a property developer.

They were disappointed when, in a preliminary ruling, the tribunal announced it had no power to overturn the sale. They also lamented the tribunal's refusal, in its final verdict, to order the commission to re-examine its conclusion that the developer had bought the land in good faith.

But they had been up against the commission's barrister Matthew Smith and were pleased, in the end, to have won two out of four of the issues at stake.

They were particularly satisfied that there will now have to be enough independent trustees on the committee governing the land to form a quorum at meetings. The commission's original stipulation that three trustees out of nine should be independent had not prevented the approval of plans to build what the appellants say was a road through another section of the charitable land. This plan was withdrawn before the hearing began, but Maidment said people were still nervous: "If it's happened once, it can happen again."

The appellants were also complimentary about their experience of the tribunal. The adversarial mood of the tribunal's first two hearings was replaced by a friendly ambience in which procedures were adjusted to allow for their lack of legal training. Alison McKenna, principal judge of the tribunal, gently prodded them to stick to the point and stay on schedule, and was a model of tact when asking Maidment not to interrupt the case officer he was cross-examining. "It is forensically attractive to do it your way, but it is difficult for the stenographers," she said.

Whether the Dartford appellants' example will encourage other appeals by litigants in person remains to be seen, but it seems clear that anyone who does so has nothing to fear.


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