The year in law and governance: 2011

Third Sector reporter Kaye Wiggins looks back at the key stories of the past twelve months

The Royal Courts of Justice
The Royal Courts of Justice

The legal dispute between the Charity Commission and the Independent Schools Council about the commission’s guidance on public benefit was the biggest charity law development of 2011.

In May, the Upper Tribunal held a hearing that combined an application by the ISC for a judicial review of the regulator’s guidance with a reference from the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, that asked for greater clarity about how fee-charging schools could show they provided the public benefit required for charitable status.

In October, the tribunal ruled that parts of the Charity Commission’s guidance on public benefit were wrong in law. It also said, however, that the regulator was right to say fee-charging schools must provide some benefits for those unable to pay the fees. Those benefits must be more than "tokenistic", the ruling said.

In December, after the commission and the ISC failed to agree on what the ruling meant in practice for the regulator’s guidance, the tribunal ruled that the commission’s guidance on public benefit and fee-charging charities and some sections of its general public benefit guidance should be withdrawn. The regulator confirmed it had withdrawn aspects of the guidance relating to public benefit and fee-charging charities on 21 December.

The tribunal heard another case in November, about whether benevolent funds, which relieve poverty among a group of people linked by a relationship to a particular company or individual, provide the public benefit required for charitable status. The Professional Footballers’ Association Benevolent Fund, the BT Benevolent Fund and the British Airways Welfare and Benevolent Fund were among the 10 charitable funds that became formal parties to the case, on the grounds that they could be affected by it. The tribunal has not yet published its ruling.

The Charity Commission’s other preoccupation in 2011 has been a restructure and a strategic review that followed the government’s decision to reduce its funding from £29.3m to £21.3m over four years. The restructure, which was completed in October, meant 125 out of nearly 400 jobs were axed. Its strategic review, completed in December, led the regulator to reduce its one-to-one work with charities and prioritise registering charities and investigating allegations of wrongdoing.

In November, the Office for Civil Society announced that Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts would lead a wide-ranging review of the 2006 Charities Act.

In December, a new Charities Act, which consolidates existing charity law and does not change the legislation, received royal assent. The 2011 Charities Act is intended to make the law more accessible and easy to understand.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator appointed a new chair, the Very Reverend Dr Graham Forbes, and a new chief executive, David Robb, this year. In an interview with Third Sector, Robb said there would not be "radical change" at the regulator, but that its new leaders would review its progress and look for areas of improvement.

In Northern Ireland, a debate broke out this year about which types of charity, if any, should be exempted from the requirement to prove their public benefit. It had been suggested that religious charities should not have to do this.

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