The risk of challenging the regulator

Plus: Flouting the hunting ban

Alison McKenna
Alison McKenna

The complicated world of the decision review

Hospice Aid UK has found to its cost that if you challenge a Charity Commission decision by asking it for a "decision review", it can in practice prevent you from appealing to the charity tribunal if the review goes against you.

That's because charities have 42 days from the initial decision to lodge a case with the tribunal, and decision reviews can take longer than that - as when Hospice Aid UK recently challenged (unsuccessfully) the decision to register another charity as Hospices UK.

The remedy might be to ask for a decision review and lodge a tribunal appeal simultaneously. But commission guidance says it "will not usually review a decision itself once you have referred it to the tribunal".

Judge Alison McKenna said in the Hospice Aid UK case that it was open to a charity to make a "protective application to the tribunal within the time limit and ask for the case to be stayed pending the outcome of the decision review".

The commission has no hard rule about what it would do in such a case. Sometimes, it says, a decision review makes sense, especially if the case raises issues wider than the tribunal's jurisdiction; sometimes a tribunal appeal should proceed instead, it says, as when it's clear the appellant will go to the tribunal if the review goes against them and "it may as well be dealt with by the tribunal straight away".

Carry on flouting

Will the RSPCA ever prosecute another hunt, as it did the Heythrop - successfully - in 2012? On the face of it, there is no reason why it shouldn't: the independent review by barrister Stephen Wooler found that the decision to prosecute in this case "cannot be criticised in principle", although he said the costs of nearly £330,000 were higher than they needed to be.

But in practice it doesn't seem likely. In implementing all Wooler's recommendations, the charity has decided that it will now pass complaints about hunting to the police (not the case with its other prosecutions). If the police decline to investigate, "it remains open to the RSPCA" to complete its own investigation and prosecute.

But the new chief executive, Jeremy Cooper, says the charity has brought only five hunt prosecutions in 10 years and "it is a small part of our agenda". One of his priorities is, as he says in our interview on pages 26 to 29, to end the debilitating war with the charity's critics.

He adds that it remains important to enforce the law. But the message to those who, as Wooler points out, frequently appear to flout a weak law under which it is very difficult to gather adequate evidence, could well be: "Carry on flouting."

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