Authored article

Education in charity law: informing the debate

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Marion Shanley, Legal adviser to Registrations and Operations, Charity Commission.

Advancing education as a charitable purpose is as old as the esteemed education establishments of this country. It is easy to recognise some institutions which advance education, such as universities, schools and learned societies. We may also easily recognise other educational purposes such as the publication of academic research and reports and vocational education.

But not everything that labels itself as educational is charitable in law. The courts have not been afraid to look behind organisations with a stated purpose to advance education in order to scrutinise whether the purpose is genuinely to educate and whether it meets the criteria in charity law. This is particularly so where the subject matter of education in question is not obviously clear or of educational value or has a political or propagandist flavour.

The law draws a distinction between advancing education and promoting a particular view, even where the views are sincerely held and may be supported by some academic research. For instance, the Courts have held in particular cases that organisations established to advance education in ‘demilitarisation’ or ‘socialised medicine’ respectively were not charitable where upon closer examination the court concluded the organisations were not established with the genuine intention to advance education but rather promote a particular approach. This meant that the public benefit requirement was not met as it could not be ascertained that such an approach was of benefit to the community.

Debate may form part of an educational process but an organisation seeking to promote interest in a particular area of study or to stimulate debate by the provision of information will not necessarily be advancing education in the charitable sense. We are all familiar with radio phone in debates with exchanges of view or opinions. It is doubtful that they advance education by promoting knowledge and understanding in a subject area. But what if the contribution is based on academic research and information is provided to inform the debate?

Where a charity is established to advance education trustees should be mindful of the need for balance and neutrality particularly in areas of controversy and political debate to ensure that it is educational. This means presenting both sides of the argument and allowing an individual to make up their own minds and choose for themselves. A series of seminars, conferences or lectures promoting only one set of views would fail to meet this requirement.

Legal authorities make it clear that the courts are prepared to look closely at the subject matter and how it is presented. Where the subject matter is a recognised area of academic study and the views presented are strongly held, defensible and supported by academic research it does not necessarily follow that it is established to advance education in the charitable sense.

The recently published decision of the Commission on the case of Full Fact illustrates the key distinction between advancing education and promoting a particular set of view or opinions.

In that case, the Commission concluded that the work of Full Fact in providing authoritative and accurate information to the public in relation to subjects which were of public debate and concern could be educational in the charitable sense. This was provided that the information produced was derived from rigorous factual analysis which was subject to qualitative assurance through independent review. That such full and accurate facts promoted public discourse and debate which was educational in charity law.

With the next election fast approaching charities which seek to advance education in areas of political debate must take care to exercise caution and ensure they are fully compliant with the requirements of both charity law and the recent Lobbying Act.

This article was first published in Solicitors Journal in November 2014.

Published 1 November 2014