The Jehovah’s Witness charity the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain has won the right to apply for a judicial review hearing against a Charity Commission order that it hand over sensitive documents as part of a statutory inquiry.
But a Court of Appeal ruling on the matter, handed down this morning, also rejected an application by the WTBTSB for a review of the commission’s decision to open the inquiry into the charity.
The rulings represent the latest stage in a long-running legal battle which began in May 2014 when the commission opened an inquiry into WTBTSB’s safeguarding measures.
The WTBTSB sought a judicial review of the decision to launch the inquiry and of a commission production order requesting documents from the charity, saying both the inquiry and the order were too broad in scope, and the production order breached the Data Protection Act because it would require sensitive personal information to be shared.
This application was rejected on 12 December 2014 because the judge said the case should be taken to the charity tribunal, and an appeal to the tribunal made 10 days later was rejected in March 2015 because it had been made outside the 42-day time limit.
But WTBTSB pursued the claim to a Court of Appeal hearing, which took place on 10 February, arguing that it should be allowed to have its appeal heard as part of a judicial review, since the first-tier tribunal only had the power to quash enquiries, not to limit the scope.
Today Lord Dyson, the Master of The Rolls, Lord Justice McCombe and Lord Justice David Richards, agreed that the specific wording of section 320 of the Charities Act 2011 prevented the tribunal from presiding over an appeal in relation to the scope of a production order, and ruled that the judicial review application should be allowed to go ahead.
But in relation to the inquiry itself, the judgment said the tribunal could simply have quashed the inquiry and set out the limits which any future inquiry would have to adhere to.
The ruling said: "It would then be open to the commission to exercise its discretion to open a new inquiry and define its scope in a manner consistent with the court’s judgment."
It said fears outlined by WTBTSB’s that the commission might not adhere to the judgment were "not a reason for saying that a statutory appeal is not an effective and convenient form of redress against a public body such as the commission".
The scope of the commission’s inquiry and the types of documents it demanded to see have been the subject of controversy after emails between the commission’s board members released in connection with another case revealed that board member Orlando Fraser had called for a "Watch Tower-type look-see" inquiry into another charity.
A commission spokesman said: "The commission is disappointed that the Court of Appeal found in favour of Watch Tower in one respect.
"The commission continues to believe that the specialist tribunal is the correct venue to hear such challenges. The commission has concerns that this judgment may cause confusion to charities and trustees wishing to challenge an order under section 52 of the Charities Act 2011, as they will now need to work out whether the Administrative Court or the Charity Tribunal is the right place to bring the challenge."
But he said the commission was pleased the request to appeal against the inquiry itself had been dismissed.
"This is a significant decision allowing the commission’s inquiry to continue to progress," he said.
No one from WTBTSB was available for comment.