Editorial: Two judgements to take notice of

The RSPCA's legacy case and the charity tribunal's decision on the Sivayogam temple are significant, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

Charities have had an interesting 10 days on the legal front. In the High Court in Leeds, the RSPCA lost its attempt to defend a legacy against a challenge by a member of the legator's family; and the Charity Commission was successfully challenged by a trustee of a small charity in the charity tribunal.

The RSPCA case illustrates how charities need to guard against reputational damage when disputes of this kind arise. The case addressed two main issues - whether a mother's will was unduly influenced by her husband, and whether the disinheritance of the daughter in favour of the charity constituted a moral injustice. On both counts, the judge found against the RSPCA, which says it is going to appeal.

There is now a spat between the lawyers over the extent to which charities are obliged to defend legacies when they are challenged. But the bottom line seems clear - there were opportunities to reach a reasonable settlement out of court, but they were not taken. Now many people will feel the outcome makes an important national charity look hard and uncaring.

In the charity tribunal, a trustee of the Sivayogam temple in south London appealed successfully against the commission's decision to remove him as a trustee. A notable aspect of the case was that the tribunal ruled against the commission on all seven of the issues raised. Most significantly, it said the commission had failed to show it would be reasonable for anyone to believe he was connected with the separatist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

Before the tribunal was set up, the case would probably not have been brought because it would have involved an expensive outing to the High Court. The tribunal is still in the process of establishing itself, but surely this case is a textbook illustration of why it was needed - to offer an accessible and relatively cheap remedy when people are unhappy with decisions made under the substantial statutory powers of the commission.

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