The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland will produce new guidance on its public benefit assessments early next year and aims to start registering charities by the summer, according to Frances McCandless, its chief executive.
The organisation was due to start registering charities this autumn but had to put its plans on hold because of problems with Northern Ireland's Charities Act 2008.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will pass new primary legislation in the next few months to determine whether charities will be assessed for their public benefit on the basis of their purposes, as in England and Wales, or of their activities, as in Scotland. Lawyers had pointed out that the existing legislation in Northern Ireland does not make this clear.
McCandless, who was appointed as the CCNI chief executive in February, said there would be a consultation on its new public benefit guidance, after which the CCNI would start registering charities.
McCandless said the organisation was still working out how to be an effective regulator of about 12,000 charities with an annual budget of only £800,000. It will employ 14 staff and all of its registrations will be done online, she said, unless there is a good reason for a paper application.
"Registration will be compulsory for all organisations that have purely charitable purposes, even if they do not receive tax breaks, nor wish to do so," she said. "HM Revenue & Customs will retain responsibility for qualifying charities for tax breaks. It won't be within our jurisdiction."
McCandless said that, unlike in England and Wales, there would be no minimum income threshold below which charities do not have to register. "Research shows that small organisations feel disadvantaged without a charity number," she said.
About 7,500 organisations in Northern Ireland are registered with HM Revenue and Customs for charitable tax breaks. The CCNI would contact these, she said, then track down the charitable organisations that were not on the HMRC register.
McCandless also said the CCNI would register the charities at the greatest risk of breaking charity law first, rather than on a first-come, first-served basis. This would mean that charities that are already registered with the Charity Commission in England and Wales or the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator would not be a priority, she said.