The charity tribunal has given permission for the first time for witnesses at a forthcoming hearing to give evidence anonymously from behind screens or by video link, or in private.
The hearing will consider the appeal by the Preston Down Trust, a congregation of Plymouth Brethren is Devon, against the decision by the Charity Commission not to grant it charitable status. It is seen as a test case for about 300 other Brethren congregations.
The Brethren is a religious group that expects daily church attendance of members and has a strict doctrine of separation that prohibits members from eating or drinking with non-members or having friendships outside the group. Former members say that it was known until recently as the Exclusive Brethren.
Papers from a directions hearing at the tribunal earlier this week allow for witnesses "to remain anonymous to the appellants, to be screened off at the hearing, to give evidence by video link and/or for part of the hearing to be held in private session".
The tribunal papers say that said that before it would allow anonymity, the commission would have to explain "why the witness's evidence is relevant to an issue before the tribunal" and "why such measures are necessary in order to obtain the best quality evidence from that witness".
Charity law provides that an organisation can be refused charitable status if it does not provide sufficient public benefit, or if it creates disbenefits that outweigh any benefits.
A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said that it had been approached by several people who had requested the opportunity to give evidence anonymously about alleged harm done by the Brethren. It would submit a list of such witnesses, but would not include their evidence in its own case, she said.
Instead, it would present its original case against giving charitable status to the Brethren, offering evidence about lack of public benefit but not about disbenefit.
Third Sector understands that the witnesses who have approached the commission are former members of the Brethren who believe harm has been done to themselves and their families by the group. They might wish to remain anonymous because they are worried about harassment, or because family members remaining in the Brethren could suffer victimisation.Stephanie Biden, a senior associate at charity solicitors Bates Wells & Braithwaite, said the decision to allow evidence to be given anonymously indicated that the tribunal was willing to hear evidence of alleged harm done by the Brethren.
But she said that there was little case law that would help the tribunal balance evidence of public benefit against evidence of harm, and it was not clear how the evidence would be handled. "How much harm counteracts how much benefit?" she said.
Biden said that it was not clear how much weight the tribunal would give to evidence of harm from former Brethren if the commission did not focus on it, or if the individuals chose to remain anonymous.