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Personal Liability of Charity Trustees

The House of Lords Select Committee noted in its recent Report “Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society” (March 2017, available here) that registered charities in England and Wales with an annual income of less than £100,000 make up almost three quarters of the sector.

These smaller charities contribute significantly to the wellbeing of the nation, but, given the voluntary nature of trusteeship, charities have for some time found it difficult to recruit suitable trustees. It is worth noting that the average age of trustees is 57 and rising, half of all charities have vacancies on their boards (with many struggling to fill those vacancies), the age and gender profiles of trustee boards differ significantly from those of wider society, and the recruitment problem is being exacerbated by trustees being overburdened with responsibility or regulation.

The Growing Burden of Regulation

As the Report found, being a trustee has become more challenging: the environment for charities has changed substantially (particularly as a result of increased financial pressures and significant shifts in funding models), and there are also additional legal and regulatory requirements to comply with, such as new data protection regulations and fundraising standards. The Charity Commission noted in evidence to the Select Committee that navigating these challenges required “strong strategic leadership and the ability to take managed risks; we see many boards failing to rise to the occasion”.

Lack of Knowledge of Trustees’ Roles & Responsibilities

Evidence submitted to the Select Committee indicated that many new and existing trustees were not really familiar with the role, its requirements, and responsibilities (although, following the collapse of Kids Company, trustees have become more conscious of their responsibilities). This is a problem for small and medium sized charities (as well as for some larger charities) since, irrespective of the size of a charity, the role of trustee (although an honorary position), carries with it legal duties, responsibilities, and potential liabilities, and crucially, trustee boards need to have both the necessary knowledge of their legal responsibilities and the necessary range of skills between them to enable them to carry out their responsibilities correctly.

Additional Risk of Personal Liability if Your Charity is Unincorporated

Against this background, we are concerned that trustees of small and medium sized charities often bear a potential risk over and above the risks and responsibilities borne by trustees of larger charities. This stems from the fact that rather than being set up in a corporate form (e.g. as a company limited by guarantee or as a CIO), smaller charities are more likely to be set up as “unincorporated associations” or “trusts”. As we explain below, this increased risk arises from the lack of “separate legal personality” that a corporate form provides.

Whether a charity is in corporate form or it is an unincorporated association or trust, failure of a trustee to discharge his/her governance liabilities is a personal liability of each trustee (“breach of duty” or “breach of trust”) and any resulting loss to the charity is the trustees’ personal liability. Where a trustee has acted honestly and reasonably, the Charity Commission is less likely to enforce that personal liability. Trustees will also have personal liability if the charity is insolvent and they have engaged in wrongful or fraudulent trading, or if they fail to file certain documents, or they breach certain health & safety, environmental, discrimination, tax, or other laws.

Where the charity is incorporated, its liability for debts and other liabilities incurred by it (for example, to suppliers or staff) remain its sole liability even if it has insufficient assets to meet the liability – its trustees will not also be personally liable. Establishing a charity in incorporated form will therefore mitigate potential exposure to personal liability of trustees for a charity’s debts and other financial liabilities. There has been a growing trend towards use of incorporated vehicles for charities. The usual form is the company limited by guarantee but charities may also use the CIO form introduced by recent charity legislation.

Compare this to a charity which is an unincorporated association or trust: its trustees might also incur personal liability due to the activities of the charity (i.e. not due to their own conduct as trustees). For example, a charity might provide services to a local authority, or hold a lease on premises, or employ staff. In each case, the charity will have a legal relationship under which it could become liable to another party. The trustees might also become personally liable as a result of that liability of the charity (even though they may personally have acted properly) since they are in effect the organisation and they can be sued as individuals. All liabilities of their organisation will be theirs, but they will normally not be ultimately liable (i.e. the liabilities will be met out of the assets of the charity). However, if the charity does not itself pay a debt or some other liability of the charity, and it has insufficient assets to meet liabilities, the trustees could be personally liable to the extent of the shortfall. Although it is rare, it is not impossible for trustees of an unincorporated charity to be held personally liable in this way for the activities of their charities. This was illustrated in a recent decision of the High Court in the case of Chandra v Mayor (2016) where it was affirmed that each member of an unincorporated charity’s trustee board was personally liable for the charity’s wrongful dismissal of an employee.

Should There Not Be a Level Playing Field for All Charity Trustees?

Trusteeship carries important responsibilities and that message needs to be clear. Against this, there is a need to encourage volunteers to take up trustee roles since, as the Charity Commission points out, volunteer trustees play a vital role in a sector that contributes significantly to the character and wellbeing of the country. So, if many people consider that it is reasonable to remove the potential for personal liablility of trustees arising solely from the fact that their charity is unincorporated rather than incorporated, shouldn’t legislation be introduced to protect trustees from that personal risk?

We would like to hear from you on this. Do you feel that, to remove this risk from their trustees, charities should have to go to the trouble and expense of incorporating, and then incur the ongoing additional trouble and expense attached to maintaining a corporate entity, given that most charities have very limited resources? Should there not instead be a simple piece of reforming legislation which has the effect of removing this inequality between incorporated charities on the one hand and unincorporated charities on the other hand? Your thoughts, as ever, are encouraged and welcome.

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