Public benefit 'will not cause problems' to private schools

Most independent schools will not find it difficult to demonstrate that they provide public benefit in return for their charitable status, according to a leading firm of charity lawyers.

Stone King, which has the seventh highest number of charity clients in the country, comes to this conclusion in a new assessment of the impact of the Charities Act on fee-charging schools.

"In the main it is likely to be a case of directing slightly more attention and resources to certain activities, or simply making more noise about the activities of the school which particularly benefit the local or external community," says the document, which has been co-written by Michael King, a senior partner at the firm and former chairman of the Charity Law Association.

During the passage of the Act, which removed the presumption of public benefit for education, the Government resisted pressure to strengthen requirements for fee-charging charities to prove their public benefit.

The Charity Commission has had discussions with independent schools and in March will launch a consultation on how it will interpret public benefit, as the Act requires. It has said that it will take account of public attitudes.

Stone King says the approach of the regulator will be based on a key case from 1969 called Re Resch. This established that the charging of fees did not mean in itself that a charity was not benefiting the public.

Charity lawyer Andrew Phillips, who championed an unsuccessful amendment to the Act that would have required the commission to consider the charging of fees in deciding public benefit, said that if the regulator were to test public benefit in court, judges might take into account social and cultural circumstances as well as case law.

He warned against "too much crowing from the more self-satisfied part of the independent schools" sector over public benefit.

"If some of the schools that have been bucking their ideas up in anticipation of this Act relapse into their old rut, and the commission is at all dynamic about this, then they will be in danger," he said.

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