Pink chairs and cardboard boxes

Paul Jump reports from the Charity Tribunal's first hearing

What with all the fuss about public money being sunk into MPs' moats and repairs to their Agas, the long-suffering taxpayer will be relieved to hear that many expenses appear to have been spared at the Tribunals Service.

Bedford Square in London's elegant Bloomsbury seemed an appropriate address for the Charity Tribunal's first ever full hearing (Third Sector Online, 14 May), but the bog-standard strip lights, suspended ceilings and nondescript furniture of room five, deep in the building's labyrinthine, windowless depths, was hardly an eloquent testament to the majesty of the law. The only faint trapping of power was the UK coat of arms on the wall.

Nor was there much sense of occasion. Everyone stood for the entrance of tribunal president Alison McKenna and her two legal sidekicks, Peter Hinchliffe and Jonathan Holbrook, but there wasn't a wig or gown to be seen. Nor did McKenna indulge in any opening "this is a historic day" remarks.

Everyone already knew each other from the earlier directions hearing, and it wasn't as if there was much of a gallery to play to. Apart from Third Sector and Mark Wiggin, chief executive of the appellant charity Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds), there were only two other interested observers - and even they were there only out of professional interest.

Wiggin was called to testify at a desk mysteriously littered with what appeared to be bags in various traffic-light shades, and McKenna was flanked by a haphazardly stocked bookcase on one side and an empty one on the other. A lone pink chair sat unoccupied near the door.

When the opposing barristers launched into their closing addresses, they stood up in the time-honoured fashion - only they hadn't been provided with lecterns for their notes, so they had to improvise with cardboard boxes. The psychologically debilitating effects of this arrangement were illustrated by the inability of Catholic Care's barrister, Matthew Smith of Maitland Chambers, to get through a sentence without saying "as it were" at least twice.

As for McKenna, she eschewed the stony stares beloved of High Court judges in favour of a genial approach that ended around lunchtime with her wryly thanking the legal teams for providing her with "mounds of paperwork". We will have to wait up to three weeks for the tribunal's first verdict, but the ruling on its first full hearing must be that it was, in the end, rather underwhelming.

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