Law and religion roundup – 14th January

The week in which the Revd Ms Vennells sent back her CBE…

… however, as the BBC notes, “[t]he only person who can strip someone of an honour is King Charles. People can indicate they would like to renounce their honour, as Ms Vennells has now done – but doing so has no formal effect. Until the King is advised by the Forfeiture Committee and acts on its advice, Ms Vennells will continue to hold her CBE”. It was also the week in which it was alleged by the media that Ms Vennells had been shortlisted for Bishop of London.

Lack of legal recognition for same-sex relationships again

In Przybyszewska and Others v Poland [2023] ECHR 999, the applicants were five same-sex couples who complained of a lack of any form of legal recognition and protection for their respective relationships [1]. The First Section ECtHR cited as authority the Grand Chamber’s exhaustive judgment in Fedotova and Others v Russia [2023] ECHR 55 (from which the Polish judge on the Court, Judge Wojtyczek, dissented – as did the Russian judge, notwithstanding that by the time that decision was handed down, Russia was no longer a party to the Convention). It duly held by six votes to one that there had been a violation of Article 8 (private and family life):

“the Court considers that the respondent State has overstepped its margin of appreciation and has failed to comply with its positive obligation to ensure that the applicants had a specific legal framework providing for the recognition and protection of their same-sex unions” [123].

Unsurprisingly, Judge Wojtyczek dissented once again.

Freemason subscription fees, “philanthropy” and VAT exemption

In United Grand Lodge of England v HMRC [2023] UKUT 00307 (TCC), the United Grand Lodge (UGLE) had made two unsuccessful claims in 2014 and 2018 for repayment of VAT charged on membership subscription fees. The basis of the claim for repayment was that, in the period April 2010 to March 2018, its supplies to its members had been exempt under Art 132(1)(l) of the VAT Directive and Item 1(e) of Group 9 of Schedule 9, Value Added Taxes Act 1994 as a body “which has objects which are in the public domain and are of a political, religious, patriotic, philosophical, philanthropic or civic nature.

In 2021, the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) had upheld HMRC’s decision to reject the claims. On appeal, the UT considered that the FTT had failed to give adequate reasons why it did not accept UGLE’s argument that there was one main “philosophical” aim and that everything was done in pursuance of that aim. Considering this to be an error of law, the UT exercised its discretion to set aside the decision of the FTT and decided that it ought to remake that decision.

On the second ground, however, though the UT considered that an aim may be held to be “philanthropic” if an organisation aims to provide relief to specific categories of persons, it noted that there was a qualitative difference between organisations which raise and distribute funds for identified groups of persons and an organisation that raises funds from members with the aim, essentially, of redistributing a large part of the funds (by way of benefits procured by them) back to some of those members and to members’ dependents. That could not be considered to be “philanthropic” in the sense of wider benevolence. Appeal dismissed.

Tottenham Park Cemetery

The Ministry of Justice has announced that it is to apply to the Privy Council for an order prohibiting further burials at Tottenham Park Cemetery in North London. No new burials would be permitted except where plots had previously been reserved.

The MoJ says that the move follows two inspections which found that remains were being unlawfully disturbed during the burial process. Recommendations that no new plots should be excavated or sold, that record-keeping should be improved and that a survey should be undertaken to identify existing burials had not been met.

The press release notes that a closure order will not affect the opening of the site for the public to visit existing graves.


On Tuesday, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on “increases in anti-Semitic offences”. You can read the Hansard here.

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