The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland has been given a list of recommendations to improve its handling of statutory inquiries after an independent inquiry into two highly contentious cases.
The CCNI’s actions in its inquiries into the lifeboat charity Lough Neagh Rescue, which took place between May 2013 and January 2015, and the Disabled Police Officers Association Northern Ireland, which ran between February 2014 and March 2016, have been scrutinised by independent counsel, with a summary of findings and recommendations for the regulator made public.
The summary report, which makes 18 recommendations for the regulator, is based on a “large volume of documentation relating to CCNI and its involvement with LNR and DPOANI” and evidence provided by people who had been most affected by the cases.
It says that individuals, who are not named, affected by the CCNI’s orders and decisions in the inquiries “remain deeply aggrieved” and the “treatment of individuals by the CCNI remains an area of hurt for the individuals”.
The regulator is accused of “institutional arrogance” and that “there was a feeling shared that CCNI acted poorly when handling complaints about CCNI and that CCNI rejected complaints without properly addressing them”.
Recommendations include that the regulator should seek to ensure that when actions are taken which disrupt a charity’s functioning, supportive measures are available to minimise any disruptive effects and maximise the chance of a successful outcome for the charity and its beneficiaries.
The regulator should also consider what more could be done to improve its awareness of issues arising in individual charities so as to allow earlier intervention.
The CCNI should improve its processes to ensure that the cost to a charity is factored into the decision-making before the regulator takes steps that will incur significant costs, such as the appointment of an interim manager.
It also says the commission should review its processes around the treatment of witnesses who attend to give evidence at tribunal “to ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect and that they are able to be kept informed of case progress”.
“There were very significant impacts upon the affected individuals flowing from decisions which were made during both statutory inquiries,” the report says.
“As part of the consideration of proportionality of taking any individual measure, it may be relevant to consider what impact upon the individual that measure will have.”
It also says: “The approach to complainants by CCNI was an issue highlighted in the points received. The view was provided that there was a lack of compassion or empathy to those involved.”
The was also a claim that “undue pressure was applied by a CCNI staff member to discourage one of the LNR complainants from continuing with his support of the complaints by intimating that CCNI might look into the operations of another charity (in which that person was involved)”, according to the report.
“Overall, there are a number of lessons to be learned and if CCNI takes action based upon the issues identified then that is to be welcomed,” the report says.
“I do not, however, hold the view that this will be sufficient for many of those that engaged in this process.”
Although both cases were completed by the regulator by the end of 2015, its actions have been challenged in the courts and people affected by the inquiries have continued to contest its actions despite a High Court decision rendering the CCNI’s decisions unlawful, the report says.
It says there has been more than 60 complaints lodged with CCNI about the cases, most of which had been put in since the cases were completed.
The regulator last year apologised to Trevor McKee, who had been removed as a trustee from Lough Neagh Rescue, after the Northern Irish Court of Appeal overturned the decision because it had been incorrectly made by CCNI staff rather than board members.
But McKee told Third Sector at the time 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.
Nicole Lappin, chief charity commissioner, apologised for the impact the inquiries had on the individuals involved.
“It is clear from the review, and previous communications, that some individuals feel extremely hurt and aggrieved by the actions taken in these particular investigatory cases,” she said.
Lappin said the regulator had written to participants in the review detailing the outcome as well as starting work on an action plan, which will set out how and when the recommendations made in the report will be addressed, and that is expected to be published in the next few weeks.
“I hope, as we look to the future, this work will support the commission in improving its processes and communications, while also assuring those who participated in the review that their voices have been heard, that commissioners and staff care greatly about their experiences and are working to set right where things may have gone wrong in the past,” she said.