Greenpeace is threatening to take the Electoral Commission to court after the regulator said it was retrospectively applying election spending rules for charities for the year before next month’s election.
The campaign group also labelled the lobbying act – which sets spending limits and makes it a legal necessity for all organisations that spend more that £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Wales on regulated campaigning prior to an election to register with the Electoral Commission – a "permanent threat" to civil society.
The argument comes after correspondence between Greenpeace and the Electoral Commission in which the commission warned Greenpeace that it could face civil or criminal sanctions if it did not abide by lobbying rules for the year before the snap general election.
A spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission confirmed to Third Sector that the regulated period for non-party campaigners began on 9 June 2016 and would end on 8 June 2017, the date of the general election.
But Greenpeace said it was "absurd" to make charities abide by the lobbying act when a snap election had been called, especially considering there was a collective spending limit of £390,000 on joint campaigning.
Greenpeace has sent a letter before action to the Electoral Commission threatening to take it to the High Court unless it reconsiders what can be deemed as regulated expenditure.
In its letter to the Electoral Commission, Greenpeace highlights numerous instances where the Prime Minister, Theresa May, ruled out an election before 2020, which it says it took in good faith.
Greenpeace has also said that if the Conservatives were to elected and carried out their manifesto promise to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the risk of an election at any time would make charities and campaign groups less likely to speak out for fear of breaching the lobbying act.
John Sauven, executive director at Greenpeace UK, said: "The commission implies that because a snap election can be called at any time there is now no fixed start or end date to the regulated period. It’s as if the lobbying act and its spending cap were now permanently in force, every day of every year.
"This absurd interpretation is bound to have a significant impact on civil society because it multiplies the uncertainty and confusion already created by the lobbying act. If you are a fairly large campaign group or a smaller charity working in a big coalition, you’re now under permanent threat of being fined and even convicted for your normal campaign activities.
"There's a real risk many charities will pull out of the political debate for fear of being caught up in this bureaucratic and legal quagmire."
Last month, Greenpeace was fined £30,000 for failing to register with the Electoral Commission as a non-party campaigner before the 2015 general election.
Greenpeace said at the time that it had refused to register with the Electoral Commission as a stand against the "illiberal" lobbying act.
A spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission said: "Any individual or organisation is entitled to campaign at the general election. Rules are in place which mean that non-party campaigners that intend to spend above a certain amount must register with the commission if their campaigning activities could be reasonably regarded as intended to influence people to vote for or against political parties or any particular category of candidates.
"We have written to a range of organisations and individuals to remind them of the law. We recognise that a retrospective regulated period can present a challenge for some campaigners, which is why we take a proportionate approach to regulation and provide advice and assistance to help ensure compliance."