The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (CCNI) has been forced to delay its controversial proposals after concerns were raised over its legality.
Last month church leaders in Northern Ireland warned that the Charity Commission’s plans could pose a threat to the charitable status of churches.
The widely criticised guidance has been postponed in the wake of legal advice regarding its Public Benefit Guidance.
The purpose of the guidance was to explain how the CCNI would determine whether a body is charitable, in accordance with the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008.
But critics argue that the CCNI’s insistence in the guidance that charities in Northern Ireland provide public benefit is without any legal basis, under the 2008 Act.
A statement on the CCNI website said: “The draft Public Benefit Guidance was issued for public consultation late last year and, after responses had been considered, it was referred to legal counsel for closer scrutiny earlier this year to ensure its robustness.
“As a result of legal advice received, the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland has asked the Department for Social Development to examine a technical aspect of the legislation governing the public benefit test.
“Until this examination is completed CCNI can not begin opening of registration. We had originally planned this would happen at the end of June.”
There have been reports that the legislation may need to go back through the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly.
A spokesman for CCNI said the regulator was not able to comment on the nature of the technicality at this stage.
Speaking at the Association of Charity Independent Examiners’ annual conference last month, Frances McCandless, CCNI Chief Executive, said the length of the delay would be dependent upon how quickly the new legislation could be put through.
She said: “It’s unlikely we will open for registration in this calendar year, so that will knock back the timescale for the rest of the implementation.”
CCNI had planned to begin taking applications for charitable status last month, but now all plans have been postponed. The Chief Executive said that until the problem is resolved, “nothing is happening”.
According to the Church of Ireland website the Chief Executive of CCNI contacted the Church personally regarding the delay.
Until this examination is complete there remains no requirement for an institution to register as a charity in Northern Ireland. And any institution which operates for charitable purposes may continue to apply to HMRC for charitable status which, if granted, will entitle the institution to certain tax benefits.
Many politicians and Christian leaders warned that the CCNI was going beyond its remit and could endanger the charitable status of churches.
Earlier this year Nigel Dodds MP MLA said: “The draft guidance is not a statement of law, but the Charity Commission needs to make this clear so that trustees and others involved in running charities are not misled as to the legal tests that apply to charitable bodies.
“There are serious concerns that the Commission may be exceeding its remit set out in the 2008 Charities Act.”
And Danny Kennedy MLA, Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said: “Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are essential components of a healthy democracy.
“Churches and religious bodies are involved in campaign work and public debate on a wide range of issues, including the promotion of fair trade and social justice, the alleviation of third world debt, human trafficking, and abortion.
“Politicians and governmental agencies alike should continue to recognise the significant contribution and public benefit which churches and religious charities provide in Northern Ireland.”
Revd Dr Harry Uprichard, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Ahoghill, Co Antrim, said: “Churches have operated as charities for centuries. The Charity Commission’s draft guidance casts their charitable status into doubt.
“The Christian faith and Bible teaching are concerned with what is timeless and should not be subject to tests based on public opinion or current trends in thinking.”
Last April it was revealed that the Christian Institute had written to the CCNI, giving notice of the Institute’s intention to challenge the guidance in the courts if the problems were not addressed.
Sam Webster, Solicitor-Advocate at The Christian Institute, said: “We believe that churches and Christian charities could be put at risk of deregistration over matters which are wholly unjust.
“This was never the intention of the Assembly. We raised our concerns with the Commission during the consultation process but they have not yet been adequately addressed.”