More on public benefit, charitable status and “closed” congregations

We have posted previously on the issue of “closed” congregations and charitable status, particularly in relation to the forthcoming proceedings over the Charity Commission’s refusal to register the Preston Down Trust.

Third Sector has now reported  that it had seen a letter to the Attorney General’s Office from the Charity Commission asking that the Attorney make a reference to the First-tier Tribunal (Charity) to consider the public benefit of religious groups “where the adherents have limited interaction with the wider public”.

The letter, written two years ago by Kenneth Dibble, the Commission’s Head of Legal Services, said that while it would be difficult to estimate the number of other groups that might not meet public benefit requirements they might include the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, the Amish, the Bruderhof and the Mennonites, Hasidic and Messianic Jews and, possibly, some Buddhist organisations. Third Sector quoted from the letter as follows:

“The Commission considers that this matter does require consideration and an authoritative view as to the effect of the Charities Act 2006 following the removal of the presumption of public benefit for the charitable purpose of the advancement of religion and how the assessment of public benefit is to be determined in the context of closed or exclusive religious organisations”.

In the event, the Attorney decided not to make the reference that the Commission requested, the Commission refused charitable status to the Preston Down Trust of the Hales Exclusive Brethren and the Trust appealed the decision to the Tribunal.

A spokeswoman for the Commission said that it did not comment on leaked documents; however, she made a statement (which does not appear to be on the Commission’s website) on behalf of William Shawcross, Chair of the Commission, as follows:

“The issues concerning the Preston Down Trust, currently subject to an appeal before the tribunal, are specific to this particular organisation. I believe the tribunal will clarify the questions of law in this matter. The Commission has not changed its approach to registering religious organisations, which we do according to charity law. I am well aware of the vital role that religious charities have played in British society for centuries.”

According to the Tribunal’s Register of Cases, as at 16 January 2013 the two linked appeals – CA/2012/0003 in the name of Besley & Ors and CA/2012/0003(b) in the name of Armstrong & Ors – have been set down for hearing from 22–28 March 2013 in Court 1 in Field House, 15 Bream’s Buildings, London EC4A 1DZ.

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