charities act

Our problematic Charities Act, and why Family First is no longer a charity

Ever since the Supreme Court decision that Family First doesn’t qualify for charitable status, there’s been considerable discussion in the media, and even more so on social media. It’s been interesting to see the ‘flip flopping’ on how the left view decisions made by Supreme Courts recently. Overturning Roe v Wade was an ‘illegitimate abuse of women’s rights’ according to those on the left, whereas the decision to revoke Family First’s charitable status was welcomed by the same crowd.

This week there was a very good article written by Sarah Robson for The Detail, titled What makes a charity a charity, and why Family First didn’t make the cut? 

Robson sets the scene by explaining how the Supreme Court judgment “follows a lengthy legal process lasting almost a decade”.  Yes, Family First were forced to battle with the might of our Government for near on 10 years. We won in the Court of Appeal but ultimately lost in the Supreme Court. 

In her article, Robson makes some very salient points and also explains the origins of our Charities Act. 

Firstly, Robson makes the point there are 28,000 registered charities in New Zealand. A few mega-charities have the largest share of our charities sector, while the remaining share contains thousands of small community groups maintained predominantly by volunteers. That begs the question, why did the Government choose to pick on Family First out of the 28,000 registered charities? 

There is also the fact that in 2013, the Charities Board first decided Family First no longer qualified for charitable status, “because its main purpose was political”.  Yet that argument was quashed by the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision (involving Greenpeace), which determined that “having a political purpose wasn’t a bar to being a charity”. So the Charities Board had to then find and other reason to de-register Family First – ultimately they came after Family First because our views on marriage and family were considered to be discriminatory. We believe this was their irritation all along, the Charities Board and now the Supreme Court do not like our conservative views on marriage and family, even though the traditional family has been the bedrock of our society for centuries.

Sarah Robson’s article provides an excellent summary of the underpinnings and limitations of our current Charities Act 2005:

“The foundations of New Zealand’s charity law date back to Elizabethan times – yes, Elizabeth I – and the English Statue of Charitable Uses Act 1601. The four heads of charity are used to decide what is and isn’t a charity, and they come from an English court case, decided in 1891. They are the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, and any other purposes beneficial to the community. The four heads of charity have been included in New Zealand’s Charities Act, passed in 2005. 

But it’s really been left up to the courts to decide what is and isn’t a charity.”

Journalist Oli Lewis says: 

“[The Charities Act] is left open to interpretation, it’s got four quite broad categories that charities can apply to be charitable under, but it’s left to the courts to thrash out what actually falls under those categories.”

Full article here.

Quite clearly the Charities Act is very broad, vague and open to interpretation. Too much leeway is given, so that courts will ultimately define what is considered a charity or not.

There is also a mistaken belief in New Zealand that many charities are creaming large tax-free profits. But that is entirely false for the majority of our 28,000 registered charities, most who barely raise enough in donations to cover their operating costs. 

Family First is a non-profit, there is no lavish spending and nobody is getting rich. Ironically large portions of Family First’s fundraising over the past decade has been necessary to fight the court battles imposed on us by the Government’s legal actions. 

It was a battle that we needed to fight, for the benefit of all charities in New Zealand.

Finally here are some other experts comments made by Barrister Sue Barker, a specialist in Charities Law.

“Family First is being deregistered for engaging in the democratic process. It has not broken any laws… if Family First can be deregistered for engaging in the democratic process, my concern is that any charity can be. What we are really undermining is our democracy”. 

*This post was written by Family First staff writers.

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