The Charity Tribunal hearing into whether the Exclusive Brethren church should be granted charitable status will not now go ahead in March as planned, while the church and the Charity Commission try to find another way to resolve the matter.
The Tribunal’s principal judge Alison McKenna has granted a stay of proceedings for three months in order to let the regulator and the church consider alternatives to the five-day Tribunal hearing that was scheduled to start on 22 March. The Attorney General Dominic Grieve supports the pause.
The Preston Down Trust, part of the Exclusive Brethren church, had appealed to the Tribunal against the Commission’s refusal to grant it charitable status. The church is convinced that it meets the public benefit test and so merits charitable status but the Commission disagrees, reasoning that the doctrine of separation practised by the Brethren means it does not advance religion for the public benefit.
But now the Commission has agreed, at the request of church elders, to meet with them again to consider whether there is any alternative to the Tribunal hearing, mainly on the grounds that going ahead with the hearing will incur huge legal bills for the Trust.
After the Tribunal announced that proceedings would be stayed until 1 May, the Commission issued a statement which said:
“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.
“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.”
Witnesses who had volunteered to give evidence in the case have been notified of the pause in proceedings, the Commission added.