The chair of the Charity Commission has been accused of attacking “lefty lawyers” in a “patronising” keynote address at the Charity Law Association conference.
Baroness Stowell was speaking as part of the Charity Law Association’s 26th annual event today.
In a week when the legal profession has been under attack from the government, charity lawyers reacted to what they felt was another attempt to present challenges to the decision-making of public bodies as having a hidden agenda.
On the role of lawyers in helping charities meet public expectations, Stowell said: "Being alive to the meaning and purpose of charity in the public mind is not just important in the context of debates about the legal framework.”
Stowell said that while it was necessary that charities could test and challenge the regulator’s decisions, they must be motivated by the aims their charity pursued.
They also had a moral obligation to demonstrate attitudes and behaviour that serve their cause and the public good, she said.
Stowell said she had seen actions and litigation that seemed motivated by, or part of, a wider, aggressive response to the commission’s legitimate regulatory scrutiny, that were more about shielding individuals from accountability to protect their personal reputation.
She also questioned the cost in money and time to both the regulator and the charities themselves. “So my ask of charity lawyers, of the CLA and its members is this: when advising charity clients, including in the context of commission case work, help trustees' focus on the big picture,” said Stowell.
Stephanie Biden, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells, tweeted: “She is a bit toned down from @BorisJohnson but that’s another attack on #leftylawyers this week.”
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference earlier this week, the Prime Minister had criticised “lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders”.
Biden said Stowell’s “patronising approach” did not appreciate the fact that lawyers did support the charities they advised in furthering their charitable purposes, and fell against a backdrop of the perceived politicisation of the commission.
She said: “This is the second time in a week that Baroness Stowell has avoided taking questions at a public meeting.
“Here she gave a speech to a conference of lawyers questioning their motives.”
Nicola Evans, charities counsel at BDB Pitmans, said it came in a week that had featured worrying attacks on the legal profession from the highest levels of government.
Evans said: “It is a worry that the Baroness’ comments about challenging commission decisions could be interpreted to add to a growing narrative suggesting that challenges to decisions of public bodies must have an ulterior motive.”
Chris Priestley, a partner at Withers Worldwide, said it was a pity that there was not an opportunity for members to ask questions of the chair, as with previous addresses.
The fact that no questions could be put to Stowell spoke volumes, said Howard Dellar, senior partner and head of the ecclesiastical, education and charities department at Lee Bolton Monier-Williams Solicitors.
“The commission does get things wrong, and these are usually only recognised after a challenge by charities,” said Dellar.
“Our question must be: when is a challenge legitimate and when is it counter to the ‘obligation’ to consider the reputation of the sector as a whole or to be a waste of public funds?”
But Nicole Reed, an associate in the charity and social enterprise team at Stone King, said Stowell’s focus on collaboration was timely, and the commission had certainly shown itself to be efficient and willing to play its part in response to Covid-19.
She said the move to de-register failing charities, rather than offering support or mediation, marked an interesting change in direction from the commission’s previous reassurance that closure would be the absolute last resort.