Charity tribunal panels will no longer automatically include non-legal members, proposals say

A consultation by the Ministry of Justice suggests amending the rules so decision-making panels will no longer consist of three people by default

The charity tribunal will no longer automatically include non-legal representatives on the panels that make decisions on cases, under proposals put forward by the Ministry of Justice.

Charity tribunal cases are typically heard before a panel of three people, usually a judge and two lay members. The lay members are not legal experts but have relevant knowledge or experience of charities.

But a consultation paper published last month by the MoJ on reform of the courts and tribunals system includes a proposal to amend regulations so that panels in the first-tier tribunal, of which the charity tribunal is one, would consist of a single person unless the senior president of tribunals decides otherwise. 

It says the tribunals system needs to be more tailored and flexible in the way non-legal members are used. 

The paper says non-legal members are a "vital part of our judiciary, bringing unique skills and expertise that would not otherwise be available to the tribunal", but the government wants to move away "from a blanket approach of using non-legal members regardless of whether their specialist expertise and knowledge is relevant or required". 

It says: "Instead, they should only be part of the panel where their presence is relevant to the case.

"Their expertise and knowledge may also be used in innovative ways, with a greater focus on online engagement and ongoing conversation outside of traditional hearings between the parties and the tribunal."

The consultation says that the use of multiple panel members in tribunals across the board costs the taxpayer about £21m a year in fees alone, plus additional costs for travel, subsistence, training and general administration.

"By using non-legal members in a more tailored, flexible way, we can make sure that more people in the tribunals will benefit from their specialist expertise and knowledge, while delivering better value for the taxpayer," it says. 

The make-up of tribunal panels will remain the responsibility of the senior president of tribunals, a post held by Sir Ernest Ryder. 

There are six non-legal members who take part in charity tribunal panels, a spokesman for the judicial service said. 

Tom Murdoch, a partner at the law firm Stone King, said it would be a pity if there was less lay involvement in charity tribunal cases in the future.

"The proposal is to make the default one person, at the discretion of the senior president of tribunals," he said. "While that doesn’t necessarily mean less lay involvement, the vast majority of cases require legal expertise.

"The implication is that there will be less lay involvement in future. That would be a pity. Although, in my experience, most cases are decided by a judge on their own, there is no doubt that lay involvement – the perspective of people actually involved in running a charity – is vital."

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said the regulator was aware of the consultation and was considering whether to submit a response. 

The consultation is open until 27 October. 

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