Book Review: Charity Law Matters

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Charity Law Matters, Ronan Cormacain, Kerry O’Halloran, Arthur Williamson (of the Centre for
Voluntary Action Studies, University of Ulst er), The Stationery Office, Belfast 2001.

Charity Law Matters is an uncommon sort of publicat ion dealing with the law affecting charities or
public benefit organizations. It combines theoretical anal ysis with a practical look at the effects of
charity law in Northern Ireland. This combinati on of the results of surveys taken – to gain insights
into how the law works in practice – with the l egal/theoretical/historical discussion of the law is
much more effective than a purely legal examination of the law as written. The fact that it looks at
one jurisdiction closely (Northern Ireland) does no t really limit its application – many of the
insights gained from the surveys are probabl y equally applicable in other jurisdictions.

The book is described as a “Report of a research proj ect published to mark the Four Hundredth Anniversary
of the Statute of Charitable Uses, 1601.” This histor ical theme carries through into the Introduction and the
book itself. As Richard Fries notes in the Introduction, it is ”strange” that the statutory framework in
Northern Ireland remains the same as it was in the 1960s. He goes on:

Of all the jurisdictions in these islands none has undergone more social disruption. None is now
in greater need of charitable activity. Yet, this jurisdiction has the most dated, least relevant
legislation relating to charities in the United Kingdom. ( Charity Law Matters 1)

And the authors pick up the theme in the discu ssion of the Sources and Forms of Charity Law in
Northern Ireland(Chapter 2).

Most significantly, however, in the findings disc ussed in Chapter 12 (Strengths and Weaknesses
in Existing Charity Law), the authors discuss fi ndings derived from the empirical data of the
research project. The very first finding is that the legislative framework needs to be updated to
reflect changes that have occurred since the la ws were enacted. In addition, the findings note
that the legislation should address issues of social inclusion part icular to Northern Ireland. More
specific findings suggest that there need to be c hanges in the treatment of trading, of advocacy,
and of representation, to bring the law into better a ccord with current practice in Northern Ireland.
In addition, the book cites the lack of a “one-st op shop” for charities to register as being an
impediment to their work. These findings, based on empirical data as they are, strongly support
the legal theoreticians’ desire to see law keep pace with the times.

The book makes several recommendations in Chapter 13:
1. that there is a need for further research be conducted;
2. that there be an overall review of charity law in Northern Ireland;*
3. that there is a need for systems to register and regulate charities;
4. that the law governing fund raising needs to be updated;
5. that the law governing cy pres be revised; and
6. that a government body be specific ally charged with the responsibility of providing
pro-active support to charities.

It remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be followed, but a good gr oundwork has
been laid by the book. In addition, it is likely that the voluntary sector will take this up with the
government, because as part of the recommendations, Charity Law Matters strongly suggest that
there be extensive consultation with the voluntary sector on any changes that are developed.

Charity Law Matters is a thoughtful book and one that will be useful to lawyers and practitioners
not only in common law jurisdictions, which share the legal tradition with Northern Ireland, but in
civil law jurisdictions as well. The tensions in the law and practice between over-regulation and
under-regulation are real and apparent everywhere. This book helps to clarify issues by taking
into account the reactions of those affected by a l egal regime to the need to reform it. That adds
considerable weight to the recommendations, and gives them force – Charity Law Matters should
be read by all thoughtful persons considering refo rm of the laws affecting charities and other
public benefit organizations. KS

* The book notes that reviews of “charity” la w have been or are being undertaken not only in
Northern Ireland, but also in the Republic of Ireland, Canada, England and Wales, Scotland, and
Australia. There are discussions of all of these but Canada in this issue of IJNL, and the
Canadian developments, which are still ongoing, have been covered extensively in previous
issues. The Editor wishes to note, however, t hat other Commonwealth countries are looking into
these and related issues (e.g., in the Caribbean, in Ghana, in Tanzania, in South Africa, in the
South Pacific, and in Nigeria). It is likely that some comparative discussions, perhaps following
up on the International Charity Law Conference held at LSE and the Pacific Rim conference held
in Brisbane (both of which are discussed in this is sue), will help to sort out issues that can benefit
from international insight and perspective.