The wording of the section of the The Northern Ireland Charities Act that relates to the public benefit provided by charities is expected to be changed to follow the pattern used by charity law in England and Wales, rather than that used in Scotland.
The act, passed in 2008, defines a charitable purpose as "a purpose which is for the public benefit" – the same definition used in the 2006 Charities Act, which applies to England and Wales. However, it also says an organisation wanting to register as a charity will be assessed on whether it "provides or intends to provide public benefit" – the definition from the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005.
Lawyers had raised concerns that the act was open to legal challenge because the two sets of provisions were not compatible.
Roy McGivern, head of charity policy at Northern Ireland's Department for Social Development, told Third Sector that it was being proposed that the wording taken from the Scottish legislation would be removed from the act and be replaced with wording from the 2006 act applying to England and Wales.
He said a paper outlining the change had been sent to the Northern Ireland Executive, which would have to approve its introduction to the assembly. He said Alex Attwood, Northern Ireland's Minister for Social Development, had requested that the amendment be given an "accelerated passage" through the assembly, meaning it could be passed within two weeks and bypass scrutiny from the Committee for Social Development.
The change is expected to be considered by the Stormont Assembly next month.The Assembly will be dissolved in March, ahead of the elections taking place in May.
Asked why the department had decided to retain the English and Welsh definition, rather than the Scottish one, McGivern said this was more straightforward because it would not necessitate further amendments to the act.