Public benefit, charitable status and “closed” congregations – further developments in Preston Down

Readers will be aware of the forthcoming proceedings in the First-tier Tribunal (Charity) in relation to the Charity Commission’s refusal to register the Preston Down Trust of the Hales Exclusive Brethren on the grounds that it has not demonstrated a sufficient degree of public benefit – on which we reported previously here and here.

The Charity Commission has now issued an updated statement on the case as follows:

“The promoters of the Preston Down Trust have requested that the Commission consider whether there is an alternative to appealing to the Tribunal against its decision to refuse registration, primarily on the grounds that the appeal process will incur them significant legal costs. The Commission has had preliminary discussions with the legal advisers to the Trust to see whether such an alternative might be found. Although the Commission’s preference is that the matter be dealt with authoritatively and independently in the Tribunal, as with any litigation conducted at public expense, the Charity Commission has a responsibility to explore any suitable alternative to Tribunal proceedings. To allow time for these discussions, the Preston Down Trust, with the Commission’s consent, has requested a stay of the legal proceedings in the Tribunal, effectively pausing proceedings. This has been granted by the Tribunal. The Attorney General is supportive of this approach.

Any resolution of this issue would need to provide greater clarity about the Trust’s compliance with the legal framework, which we have previously stated is unclear. Our discussions with the Preston Down Trust will centre on their willingness to make those changes needed to ensure the Trust is charitable and meets the public benefit requirement. These discussions are at an early stage.

The Commission is very clear that its position remains the same; any application for registration put forward by the Exclusive Brethren must set out exclusively charitable purposes and explain how these will be advanced for the public benefit. The application must satisfy the Commission as to the nature of its intended practices and how these will advance religion for the public benefit. The Attorney General, in his role as the guardian of charity, will also need to be satisfied. Issues of detriment and harm will be considered.

The Commission does not and will not register any organisation that does not wholly fulfil the legal requirements for registration. If it is not possible to deal with the issue this way, the Trust will not be registered, and the Trustees will have the option of lifting the stay of legal proceedings and continuing with the Tribunal process. The Commission will continue to ensure it is ready to take part in any such proceedings. It remains the Commission’s position in general that the Tribunal is the right and proper place for decisions of the Commission to be appealed, as an effective form of redress.”

Comment is almost superfluous: the suspicion is, however, that the Commission is anxious to come to a reasonable accommodation with the Trust if at all possible, given the criticism – much of it fairly ill-informed – which it has had to endure since its original decision.