In October 2020 we posted A tale of rival factions: St Mary of Debre Tsion, just one episode in a long-running saga of the dispute between two opposing groups within the congregation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Battersea.
In October 2014, the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into the charity under s.46 Charities Act 2011 but its report has only just been published – the charity in the meantime having closed and its assets and property having been transferred to a newly-formed Charitable Incorporated Organisation with similar objects to those of the charity.
The inquiry found that the two factions within the charity both considered themselves to be its rightful trustees and each party disputed the legitimacy of the appointment of the other. The dispute was impacting almost every aspect of the charity’s operation, including the provision of services to the charity’s beneficiaries, and allegedly contributed to public disorder within the local community. All attempts by the inquiry to get the parties to mediate failed.
The new CIO – Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church St Mary of Debre Tsion, London (Registration No. 1180723) – was registered with the Commission on 5 November 2018. There then followed a series of delays during which the actions of the interim trustees were further challenged, the matter returned to the High Court, and new timetables were set for the holding of an Annual General Meeting to elect new trustees for the CIO. After yet further delays and inaction by the trustees, in September 2022 the inquiry made an order under s.84 of the 2011 Act directing the trustees of the charity to sign the outstanding documents and to provide details of the charity’s remaining assets.
Finally, on 31 January 2023 the inquiry received confirmation from the solicitor representing the CIO trustees that the completed transfer deeds had been submitted to HM Land Registry. At that point, the inquiry concluded that the transfer of the property (ie the church) to the CIO had taken place and removed the charity from the register on the grounds that it had ceased to operate.
The Commission concludes that the dispute had directly contributed to the issues faced by the charity. Individuals on both sides of the dispute were unable to put their differences aside and cooperate for the benefit of the charity and its beneficiaries. It also notes that:
“A significant amount of time and resources of the charity have been expended on seeking to resolve the dispute and related litigation. It is important that all parties concerned in this matter look to the future and ensure that the CIO is run successfully in accordance with its governing document for the public benefit in general and specifically for the beneficiaries.
Legal action can present significant risk to a charity’s beneficiaries, assets and reputation. A trustee body has a duty to manage risk responsibly by identifying and assessing the risks their charity might face and deciding how to deal with them” [emphasis added].
(Or as my first-year law tutor summed it up at one of my earliest tutorials way back in the dim and distant ‘60s: “Advice to those about to go to law: don’t”!)