On the 19th February the Court of Appeal, upholding an earlier decision of the lower court, delivered one of the most scathing judgements rendered in recent times.
The Northern Ireland Charity Commission was found to have been unlawfully delegating their decision making to members of staff. This had allowed an environment to thrive whereby out-of-control civil servants were permitted- without appropriate oversight or scrutiny- to issue a range of arbitrary and oppressive orders against charities operating in Northern Ireland.
Despite the significance of this judgement, the BBC Northern Ireland website did not even carry the relevant court report. This is even more concerning given the fact the BBC NI newsroom have consistently, without scrutiny or question, effectively engaged in propaganda offensives for the commission. Why no public interest ‘special investigation’ into the failings of the Charity Commission?
If BBC NI exists to report on matters of public interest, then it is somewhat strange that they assess it to be in the public interest to report prejudicial, and often wholly inaccurate, allegations against charities based on unlawful leaks, briefings or press releases by the commission. Yet they see no such public interest in the court ruling that the said commission has been acting unlawfully.
If one is sceptical, it could very well have something to do with BBC NI’s senior reporter Kevin Magee being the brother of Seamus Magee, one of the Charity Commissioners.
The judgement of the court, delivered by McCloskey LJ, stated in relation to some of the impugned decisions;
“It is manifestly antithetical to the values and standards driving the overriding objective which, expressly or otherwise, applies to all courts and tribunals. The agencies and individuals to whom these words are directed are exhorted to take careful note.”
It is difficult to imagine a more scathing rebuke to a public body, yet there has been a complete silence from the newsroom of our public service broadcaster.
The commission steadfastly refused to take guidance from the Attorney General or countenance any suggestion that they were behaving unlawfully, instead arrogantly proceeding to harass charities without any concern for constraining themselves to the powers and duties conferred not upon CCNI staff, but upon the commission.
Even after the original High Court decision, which was explicit, the commission continued to waste public money with an ultimately fruitless appeal. The appeal representations were at times nothing short of laughable. Indeed, the court appears to draw attention to the commission’s desperate efforts to come up with literally any thin justification for their actions at paragraph (25):
“No formulation of the arguments, no matter how imaginative or resourceful, can distract from the fundamental reality that these appeals raise a narrow, self contained question of statutory construction.”
The answer to that question is pretty clear. The commission do not have the power to delegate their decision-making powers to staff members, save for three discrete provisions contained within the Charities Act 2008.
The court outlined this in clear and unambiguous language at paragraph (28):
“Subject to the three exceptions noted, there is nothing in the statutory language which permits staff of the commission to exercise any of the powers, duties or functions which the statute confers on the commission.”
That raises a number of issues in relation to orders of the commission issued using the unlawful formula they deployed since their inception. It is clear that any such orders issued on the authority of a staff member were issued unlawfully. All charities should challenge any such orders out of time to the Charities Tribunal and have such decisions quashed as they are plainly wrong in law.
However, a key question is the registration of charities. If the unlawful formula has been used to register charities, then such registration would be unlawful and as such the admittance of all charities into the register would be null and void if challenged.
Prior to Christmas the commission had to publicly deny they had a sectarian motive after several concerns were raised by charities within the unionist community in relation to the draconian, oppressive and at times bullying behaviour of the out-of-control quango.
It has been one error after another by this incompetent bullying quango. It is time the commissioners resigned and that staff members responsible for the unlawful actions of the commission are held to account.
There has been precious little political reaction to this scathing judgement, and as noted our public service broadcaster, so often a propaganda platform for the commission, has been completely silent on the unlawful actions of the commission.