CHARITIES could be left exposed and are ill-equipped to address the complex legal questions generated by the Equality Act 2010, according to a new study by the University of Liverpool’s Charity Law & Policy Unit.
The year-long project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust , found that although charities are aware of the legislation they may not understand how it affects them, potentially leaving them open to a challenge that threatens their charitable status.
The Equality Act 2010 tightened the exceptions that allow charities to target their services to particular sectors of the population, for example along gender lines. In response, charities must ensure their existing approaches comply, but the study found the extent to which they have done so is not clear.
Debra Morris , Director of the Charity Law & Policy Unit, said: "There is a lack of understanding around the exceptions in the Act that allow charities to target their services. Most charities have not considered that their targeted service provision might be discriminatory. Charities tend to believe that a challenge to their targeted provision is unlikely due to the regulators’ reduced resources.
“The question of whether a charity’s core activities should be regulated by reference to the Act, or whether charity law, with its public benefit requirement, provides adequate safeguards to ensure equality, requires further consideration"
“Charities are unlikely to appreciate that non-compliance with the Act may mean that they are considered not to be acting in the public benefit, resulting in loss of charitable status."
The study, led by Debra Morris, alongside Anne Morris and Jennifer Sigafoos , found religious charities and higher education institutions may be most exposed. Older charities may also discover that outdated charitable aims are no longer justifiable in the wake of the new legislation.
Debra said: "The inter-relationship between the Act and charity law is one of the questions that this study has shown to be particularly problematic. The question of whether a charity’s core activities should be regulated by reference to the Act, or whether charity law, with its public benefit requirement, provides adequate safeguards to ensure equality, requires further consideration."
Navigate the new legal landscape
As well as considering the interaction between charity law and equality law, the project included an empirical investigation of the Equality Act 2010 in practice. This involved talking to charities, lawyers and regulators about their understanding and experience of the Act and its impact on charities.
Debra added: "As the first empirical project in this area, the findings are interesting, thought-provoking and, to some extent, unexpected. We hope that they will provide a major contribution to helping charities navigate the new legal landscape."
The detailed research report, which includes the research findings, four case studies, and both policy recommendations and advice for charities can be read here: http://liv.ac.uk/law/research/charity-law-and-policy/impact/