Government response

Court of Appeal gives judgment in court case by Jehovah's Witness charity

Judgment handed down by Court of Appeal in legal challenge to Charity Commission inquiry opened in 2014.

Today, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment regarding the commission’s statutory inquiry, opened in 2014, into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain (the leading Jehovah’s Witness charity in the UK). This judgment follows a hearing on 10 February 2016. The inquiry was opened to investigate how Watch Tower safeguards children and adults at risk and has been seeking access to the registered charity’s records since 2014. These latest decisions are a part of a series of long-running legal challenges against the commission’s actions.

The commission is pleased that the court unanimously dismissed Watch Tower’s challenge to the commission’s decision to open an inquiry. This is a significant decision allowing the commission’s inquiry to continue to progress. The challenge was dismissed because the court accepted the commission’s argument that the First-tier Tribunal (Charity) was the correct place to hear Watch Tower’s challenge to the inquiry opened by the commission. The commission believes that the specialist Tribunal is the right venue for such cases and is pleased that the Court of Appeal has confirmed this.

The commission is disappointed that the Court of Appeal found in favour of Watch Tower in one respect, deciding that the challenge to the commission’s Order seeking documents from the charity should be heard by the Administrative Court rather than the Tribunal. This decision was reached because of the specific wording of section 320 of the Charities Act 2011, which limits the Tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear challenges to such Orders. The commission continues to believe that the specialist Tribunal is the correct venue to hear such challenges. The commission has concerns that this judgment may cause confusion to charities and trustees wishing to challenge an Order under section 52 of the Charities Act 2011, as they will now need to work out whether the Administrative Court or the Charity Tribunal is the right place to bring the challenge.

Subject to any appeals, the next step in the litigation will be for the Administrative Court to consider whether Watch Tower has put forward arguable grounds to challenge the Production Order, and therefore whether the Production Order should be assessed by the Administrative Court at a full hearing. The commission continues to defend the issuing of the Order. Subject to any appeal by Watch Tower, its challenge to the opening of the commission’s inquiry is at an end.

The commission’s inquiry into how Watch Tower safeguards children and adults at risk continues. The commission is committed to robustly investigating allegations that charities do not have adequate safeguarding policies and practices. It encourages people who have been affected by safeguarding in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in England and Wales to make contact with the inquiry lead investigator Jonathan Sanders at jonathan.sanders@charitycommission.gsi.gov.uk. Members of the public can contact the commission with any safeguarding or other concerns about charities via Complain about a charity.