Eva Abeles: Public Benefit and Preston Down

Eva Abeles, Senior Solicitor in the Charities Team at IBB Solicitors, explores the impact of the Charity Commission’s case against the Plymouth Brethren.

Religious charities of all persuasions throughout the country have been up in arms in the face of what appears to be a challenge to their charitable status by the Charity Commission. The presumption that a charity set up to advance religion or education or to relieve poverty provided public benefit was removed by the Charities Act 2006. Religious charities must now demonstrate the public benefit they provide when applying for registration. The Commission rejected the Exclusive Brethren’s application to register a Gospel Meeting Hall in June 2012 (after 3 years) on the grounds that it did not provide sufficient benefit to the public to be charitable. The Exclusive Brethren are a Christian group who seek to separate themselves from the evil of the world: they have Brethren schools, work in Brethren businesses, must cut all ties with family members who are not Exclusive Brethren and do not eat with or make friends with non-Brethren.

The first part of the Commission’s decision explains that its refusal to grant charitable status to Preston Down did not have general ramifications for other religious charities, as it was based on the particular facts of the doctrines and practices of the Exclusive Brethren. The worry is that it may be the "thin end of the wedge" if the Commission’s reasoning (below) was, in the future, used to refuse charitable status to Jewish charities operating in the strictly orthodox community.

The beneficial impact of the Preston Down Trust is more limited than that of other Christian organisations as the adherents limit their engagement with the wider public, arising as a consequence of the doctrines of their religion. It raises a concern as to whether Preston Down Trust is established primarily for the benefit of its followers or adherents... The evidence in relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and is insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit to the community.

However, the Commission stirred up significant controversy when its letter continued:

We also have concerns about the lack of public access to participation in one of the key religious services provided by the Preston Down Trust, that of Holy Communion.

As most religions restrict participation in certain parts of their worship to those who are adherents of their religion only, charities of most religious persuasions and many members of Parliament united in condemning the Commission’s decision and protested against the perception that the Commission is straying from its remit and is seeking to interfere in the practice of religious rituals.

The Exclusive Brethren appealed against the rejection to the Tribunal and the hearing was set for 25 March 2013. However, the Commission has agreed to the Brethren's request to stay the proceedings until 1 May 2013 while a less costly method of resolution is sought. The Brethren’s request is surprising, given that they had previously indicated a willingness to fight the decision all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. However, the Commission obtained the Tribunal’s permission to bring witnesses giving evidence anonymously - the desire not to air any dirty washing in public may have led the Brethren to seek a resolution away from the public arena. Charities with objects advancing religion are following these developments closely, as the outcome of the Brethren’s further negotiations with the Commission could have significant implications on the future of their charitable status. If the Brethren are unsuccessful in persuading the Commission to register Preston Down, it is likely that Tribunal process will recommence as otherwise the Commission could revisit the charitable status of those Exclusive Brethren Gospel Halls which, at present, do have charitable status.