No organisation will be listed on Northern Ireland's new charity register until its charitable status has been vetted by the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland.
The new regulator has received a list of the 7,000 Northern Irish organisations already registered with HM Revenue & Customs as charities. The organisations will be entered on a separate, publicly available list of organisations currently deemed to be charities and will be allowed to continue calling themselves charities and claiming tax relief, pending the CCNI's assessment. If they pass the assessment, they will go on the register.
This approach differs from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, which put all Scottish organisations on HMRC's database onto its charity register when it was established in 2006, and is reviewing them on a rolling basis.
Frances McCandless, the new chief executive of the CCNI, told Third Sector that her commissioners had chosen their approach to make sure that "what is on the register is clean".
She said its assessment programme, unlike the OSCR's, would not prioritise organisations whose charitable status was potentially controversial. "We will probably just work through the list alphabetically," she said.
McCandless said the organisation would look at each charity's latest accounts to ensure they were delivering public benefit and that their objects were purely charitable.
"We might ask for additional information, but our capacity for review visits will be limited, especially at the start," she said. "We currently have 11 staff and our full complement will probably only be in the high teens."
A timeline released by the CCNI late last month says assessment will begin in August, after a pilot, and will be completed by January 2012.
The regulator will release guidance in June on the public benefit requirement. McCandless said the CCNI was taking legal advice after a draft, released last year, was criticised by lawyers for failing fully to reflect Northern Irish charity law.
Naomi Gaston, an assistant solicitor at Belfast law firm Cleaver Fulton Rankin, said charities that delivered services to only one half of the sectarian divide were anxiously awaiting the guidance amid concerns that their public benefit might be challenged.
She said the CCNI's timetable for registration was ambitious and the novel process could lead to confusion. "But the result will be a more robust charity register," she added.
September 2008: Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 receives royal assent
November 2009: CCNI completes recruitment of its seven commissioners
April 2010: Frances McCandless, former director of policy at Nicva, unveiled as CCNI chief executive
June 2010: Public benefit guidance to be released
July/August 2010 Pilot registration exercise of 20 organisations
August 2010-January 2012: Transfer of HMRC-listed charities onto charity register after review of charity status