The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland has apologised to a former trustee of a lifeboat charity following a landmark ruling which could have profound consequences for charity regulation in Northern Ireland.
Trevor McKee was removed from the board of Lough Neagh Rescue in 2013, after the CCNI opened a statutory investigation into the charity over concerns about its "historic administration and governance".
But in February this year, the Northern Irish Court of Appeal overturned this decision on the basis that it was made by members of CCNI staff, not the commissioners - the CCNI board members - themselves, as specified in the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, which created the CCNI.
Earlier this month, Nicole Lappin, the CCNI’s chief commissioner, wrote to McKee about the decision, saying she wished “to offer you my sincere apologies as Chief Commissioner” and that the decision-making process has been “unlawful”.
She wrote: “I acknowledge that the order is now considered to be void as it is invalid and has no effect and I am very sorry that this error occurred.”
Lappin also apologised for not having contacted McKee sooner, saying the coronavirus crisis and the fact that the CCNI board operates on a part-time basis had delayed the response.
McKee told Third Sector said he was “not in a position to accept the apology” because it was a “technical apology acknowledging the mistake in a procedure” rather than an apology for the decision itself.
McKee said he was pursuing further legal action against the CCNI over the opening of the statutory inquiry.
The CCNI declined to comment further on the apology.
But last month it posted a legal update on its website, explaining the “significant” implications of the ruling for charity regulation in Northern Ireland, both in terms of its past decisions and how the commission will operate in the future.
It said the regulator was working with the Department for Communities to seek a solution to the issues raised by the ruling. In the meantime it said it had adjusted its procedures to comply with the judgment but said this had meant some decisions might be delayed.
It acknowledged that up until the end of May 2019, decisions over whether or not an organisation should be registered as a charity were made by the staff members, meaning “those decisions are now considered to be void”.
But it went on to tell charities: “You do not need to take any action, and may continue to operate as normal.”
The regulator also said it would contact funders who offered funding only to registered charities to ask that the situation be taken into consideration when making funding decisions.
Organisations that registered before May 2019 will not be required to submit their accounts this year, although charities which have registered since then will still have to submit.
In a statement, the Department for Communities said it accepted the judgment.
“The minister will want to understand all of the potential impacts of the judgment on past decisions to determine what is in the best interests of all stakeholders and to ensure that any future arrangements are fully considered as they will set the course for charity regulation in Northern Ireland and must be in the wider public interest,” it said.
It added the minister would determine how to respond shortly.
“In the meantime the department can give an assurance to those charities that were unlawfully registered that they remain charities in law and need do nothing differently in the interim,” the statement said.