Regulator must allow registration of Human Dignity Trust, charity tribunal rules

The HDT, which supports the decriminalisation of homosexuality around the world, appealed against the Charity Commission's ruling that challenging the law was not a charitable purpose

The Human Dignity Trust's hearing at the charity tribunal
The Human Dignity Trust's hearing at the charity tribunal

The charity tribunal has ruled that the Charity Commission must allow the registration of the Human Dignity Trust, an organisation of lawyers supporting the decriminalisation of homosexuality in countries across the world.

The organisation first applied for charitable status in July 2011. The commission rejected that application in June 2012 and upheld its decision on review in October 2013.

In announcing its 2013 decision, the commission said that although the promotion of human rights was a charitable purpose, changing the law was not. William Shawcross, chair of the commission, expressed sympathy for the HDT and its work, but said the regulator "cannot and must not make our decisions based on value judgements".

The trust appealed against that decision to the charity tribunal, culminating in a two-day hearing last month.

In its judgment, published today, the tribunal says it rejects the commission’s argument that the purposes of the HDT are "unclear or ambiguous".

It says it is satisfied that the HDT was established for the purposes of promoting and protecting human rights and promoting the sound administration of the law, and that those purposes are exclusively charitable under the descriptions set out in the Charities Act 2011.

The HDT had argued that the term "human rights" should "be given its ordinary natural meaning", whereas the commission had said it "is to be understood only as referring to those human rights accepted by the law of England and Wales", the judgment says.

It says there is "no authority for the Charity Commission’s view" and that its approach would lead to further complexity.

The tribunal says it is aware that this judgment has been watched with interest for its potential effect on other human rights organisations seeking, or already holding, charitable status.

"In the circumstances, it may be helpful for us to clarify here that as a matter of law this decision is confined to its own facts and does not establish a legal precedent for the registration of other prospective charities," the judgment says. It says the judgment "has no legal effect upon charities already registered" and does not supersede the commission’s published guidance or the decisions of higher courts.

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said it had "always recognised the valuable philanthropic work carried out by the HDT" – something acknowledged by the tribunal in its judgment.

The spokeswoman said: "We will of course consider the decision in the context of our work to register organisations established to protect human rights and in the context of our guidance to charities. As indicated in the judgment, this decision does not represent a legal precedent because it is confined to its own facts.

"It is important to note that we register about 5,000 charities a year. Most of these cases are straightforward; however, now and again we receive applications that test the limits of charity law."

Jonathan Cooper, chief executive of the HDT, said: "Obviously, we're thrilled; it's an extremely well reasoned and thought-through decision. This has put us under extreme pressure over the past few years, and now we can get on with our work."

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