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How Shaw failed the public-benefit test

08 September 2009

Useful conclusions on charity law here, says Timothy Lawson


The Law of Charitable Status: Maintenance and removal
Robert Meakin
Cambridge University Press £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

THIS BOOK was never designed to be a No. 1 Best-Seller: it is a book written by a lawyer for lawyers, but has wider interest, because it asks searching questions about the na­ture of charity and of what consti­tutes public benefit.

It is written around five basic pro­positions, which include a call for greater clarity about the powers of the Charity Commission and for the strengthening of charities’ right of appeal against its decisions. Its overall conclusion is that “at a time when it is government policy in­creasingly to rely on charities to de­liver public services and to en­cour­age the public to donate more to char­ity, it is important that there is a belief that institutions on the reg­ister are entitled to be registered as charities.”

But what is a charity? Under the Charities Act 2006, there are now 12 heads, still including the ancient ones of relief of poverty, the fur­ther­ance of education, and medical research and provision. The com­mon requirement for all charities is that they “confer benefit on the public or a sufficient section of the public”.

In arguing for clarification of the Commission’s role in admitting or rejecting applicants for charitable registration, Meakin cites numerous cases where fine distinctions on the criterion of public benefit have been drawn. One case that attracted pub­lic interest at the time was Re Shaw, in which George Bernard Shaw left money in trust to establish an al­pha­bet of 40 characters and to trans­literate one of his plays into that alphabet; this was held to be with­out public benefit.

A somewhat similar case was Re Hopkins’ Will Trusts, where money was left in trust to research evidence in support of the view that Francis Bacon was the real author of plays commonly attributed to Shake­speare; in this case, some public benefit was presumed, and charit­able status was granted.

The author’s interest in the Commission’s powers of removal arises from acting for a majority of the School Fee Planning Charities from 1993 onwards. Clearly, the Commission would need to be very confident indeed of its ground if it were ever to consider removing a whole class of charities such as fee-charging schools from its register.

Another example of a controver­sial type of charity is new-religious-movement charities: readers of the Church Times will have no difficulty in relating to the intricacies and potential pitfalls to be negotiated by the Commission in considering such applications.

The Law of Charitable Status is not an easy or light read; but a debt of gratitude is owed to Robert Meakin for sharing his wealth of experience in the field of charity law, and for distilling from it some proposals for clarifying the powers of the Charity Commission, and for levelling the field for charities that wish to appeal against its decisions. The text is supported by tables of cases and of statutes, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

Timothy Lawson formerly chaired Barnardo’s. He is a Reader Emeritus and a trustee of the charity Canterbury Relief in Need.

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