The Charity Commission has recently agreed to register a Plymouth Brethren charity, having previously ruled that the charity did not meet the Public Benefit test as set out in section 4 of the Charities Act 2011.
Members of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church base their religious practice on the concept of ‘separation from evil’, which means that the members try to lead their lives with as little interaction with non-Brethren in daily activities such as eating, drinking, worship, business, politics, marriage and education as possible.
The Preston Down Trust operates Plymouth Brethren meeting halls in the West Country. The Trust had, before the Charities Act 2011 came into force, been able to avoid registration with the Charity Commission but still benefit from charitable status because it enjoyed statutory exemption for registration as a place of worship. The 2011 Act changed the law so that trustees of a charitable trust with income over £100,000 per year had to register with the Charity Commission. This meant that the Trustees had to satisfy the Public Benefit test as laid out in the Act. In this case, the test involved the Trustees being able to demonstrate the impact of the Trust’s purposes on the public, and to demonstrate that such impact is beneficial.
The Trustees’ first application for registration was rejected by the Charity Commission for failing this test. The Commission thought that the Brethren’s services were not sufficiently open to the public. The Commission also considered that the Brethren’s practices and doctrines had little beneficial impact on the wider community.
After their application had been refused, the Trustees’ appealed and there was extensive publicity, led by a sense that religious organisations should be presumed to be for the public benefit. The Sunday Times’ headline on the story, for example, read ‘Churches battle “anti Christian” charity chiefs.’ There were also debates in Parliament.
The Trustees were permitted to submit a revised application, which involved the Trustees varying the Trusts. In considering the revised application, the Commission was faced with fresh evidence presented by ex-Brethren amongst others. The Commission took issue with, in particular, the Trust’s approach to the treatment of ex-Brethren (there were allegations that ex-Brethren suddenly found themselves homeless and without support if they were ‘excommunicated’) and certain disciplinary practices which included allegations of Brethren being placed in solitary confinement for up to five days.
In response to these concerns, the Trustees’ revised application included a Deed of Variation to the Trusts, which clearly stated the Brethren’s principles and set out how the Brethren’s actions would be ‘mitigated by compassion.’ Consequently, the Trust was found to satisfy the Public Benefit test and the Commission registered the Preston Down Trust as a charity on 17th January 2014.
The revised Trusts give the Charity Commission an opportunity to regulate on the basis of a breach of Trust should the elements of detriment and harm reappear. Ultimately, if the Trustees are unable to comply with the Trusts, the Commission has the power to apply the Trust property for similar charitable purposes on the basis of the cy-près doctrine.
If you would like more detailed advice on the law relating to charities or their administration, please contact the partner at Hunters having responsibility for your legal matters, or (for new enquiries) please contact a member of our Charity team.
This article is based on the law as at 19th February 2014. Although we endeavour to ensure that the content is accurate and up to date as at that date, it is designed to provide general guidance only and is not intended to be comprehensive or to constitute professional advice. Specific advice should always be sought, and you should only rely on advice which is given, by reference to particular facts and circumstances.