Ethiopian church charity pursues regulator in charity tribunal over dropped inquiry

The Charity Commission had opened a statutory inquiry into the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church St Mary of Debre Tsion, but subsequently stopped it

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church St Mary of Debre Tsion
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church St Mary of Debre Tsion

An Ethiopian church charity is continuing to challenge in the charity tribunal the Charity Commission's decision to open a statutory inquiry into it, even after the commission closed the inquiry.

The regulator opened a statutory inquiry into the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church St Mary of Debre Tsion, based in Battersea, south-west London, on 31 March. The trustees were informed of this in a letter dated 9 April and lodged an appeal against the move in the charity tribunal on 14 April.

On 12 May, the commission informed the charity and the tribunal that it had closed the inquiry. The tribunal then told the charity to withdraw its appeal or to give reasons why its appeal should not be struck out.

According to a directions ruling by Judge Alison McKenna published by the tribunal last week, the charity provided seven such reasons, including the lack of a review of the lawfulness of the inquiry, the church's view that the inquiry was based upon a misinterpretation of its governing document, damage to the charity's reputation by the inquiry being made public and incorrect procedure on the part of the tribunal itself.

The inquiry had not been made public by the commission, but became public knowledge after the appeal was lodged, when it was published online on the tribunal's register of cases.

In response, the commission requested that the tribunal strike out the appeal, saying that it had publicly acknowledged when closing the inquiry that its opening had been based on an incorrect interpretation of the governing document.

The commission said that with the inquiry now closed, there was nothing more the tribunal could achieve, aside from "unnecessary costs of public funds and court time", the document says.

McKenna says in the document that the situation is "a genuinely difficult issue and there is no precedent for me to follow". She says she is "acutely conscious of the potential cost to the public purse", and to the charity, of the appeal continuing. She suggests that an alternative would be for both parties to agree to file a consent order asking the tribunal to allow the appeal.

"The charity could thereby obtain some public recognition of its position without incurring the costs of a full hearing," says McKenna, who says she would be willing to allow further time for the parties to do so.

She adds that it is important the charity has the right to pursue the transparency and accountability that parliament created the tribunal to provide.

She writes: "I am troubled by the suggestion that a charity should be deprived of this opportunity by administrative action on the part of the government body whose decisions are subject to review. This would leave that charity without a remedy in cases of unfairness.

"There are obviously reputational issues at stake for charities which are known to have been subject to a decision to open an inquiry, and I am concerned that these may not be ameliorated by the mere closure of that inquiry."

The commission must respond to the church's renewed appeal by next week.

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