When is the charity tribunal the best arbiter?

The case of the Human Dignity Trust went to the tribunal, where its appeal was allowed, but the Preston Down Trust reached an accommodation with the Charity Commission

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The charity tribunal this week allowed the appeal of the Human Dignity Trust against the decision of the Charity Commission not to register it as a charity. The trust aims to support people in various countries whose human rights are violated by the criminalisation of private, adult consensual homosexual conduct.

The commission argued that the objects of the trust were too vague for the commission to be sure that it was established for charitable purposes only, and that the trust had a political purpose, which would prevent it being a charity: namely, seeking to change the law of foreign states.

The tribunal ruled against all seven of the arguments made by the commission and pointed out, crucially, that the trust was not involved in seeking to change the law of foreign states. Rather, it sought, in national courts or international tribunals, to enforce the supremacy of international human rights treaties in countries that have adopted such treaties in their constitutions but do not honour them in their domestic laws.

Given that the advancement of human rights is a charitable purpose in the Charities Act 2011 and that the criminalisation of homosexual activity is widely acknowledged to be a serious contravention of international human rights law, it is hard to see why the commission declined to register the trust in the first place.

Perhaps it was considered preferable that a case that turned on human rights, which has become a subject of controversy in recent years, was settled by a tribunal rather than a non-ministerial government department.

The case contrasts with that of the Preston Down Trust, a congregation of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, which the commission also at first declined to register, earning criticism from some MPs for alleged bias against religion. Some lawyers felt the complex issues involved in that case would be best settled in the tribunal, but the commission reached an accommodation with the church and agreed to register it.

Without access to private discussions and thoughts, it is hard to know the full range of factors taken into account by the commission when it makes its decisions. What is clear, however, is that some cases that seem to merit the tribunal’s attention don’t get it, and vice versa.

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