In this article we look at a recent case and the threshold of how “useful” research needs to be to qualify as being charitable. 20 Mar 2017 Post by: Steven Moe
This article contains a discussion of a fascinating case that came out at the end of 2016. The reason it is interesting is that the Judge had some frank words about the process that the Charities Registration Board had followed when looking at applications from two related groups for charitable status. In her conclusion the Judge notes that, “The Board has simply made mistakes”. Let’s have a look at what went on in more detail and see what we can learn from what happened. Most important let’s see what conclusions this may have for charities involved in research of some kind and whether they can (or cannot) obtain charitable status.
Two entities had applied for incorporation as charities. They were involved in research into “cryonics” and the extension of human life through preservation of humans and their reanimation in the future. They applied for charitable status in late 2011 and were declined in July 2013. There were many requests for additional information in between the application and the decision. The key finding by the Board was that:
“…the Foundation is not qualified to be registered as a charitable entity … we consider that the Foundation pursues an independent purpose to fund cryonics research (research into the cryopreservation and reanimation of people). This purpose does not advance education and or any other purpose that is charitable at law. Further, we are also not satisfied that the Foundation’s purposes provide sufficient public benefit, which is a requirement for charitable status.”
So what was the reasoning behind this conclusion? The Board felt that cryonics research was not an “accepted academic discipline” or that it was an area of “current science” or had any benefit to be researched. The Judge noted that in coming to this conclusion there had been independent research by the Board of material on the internet which helped it to come to that decision. The Judge had a dim view of that extra research which went beyond the information that had been provided by the applicants – this could be the subject of a whole article itself but the following quote gives the flavour: “…the perils of the internet are legend. It is possible to obtain web support for almost any proposition one cares to name… I consider the Board was wrong to put any store in the information obtained from the internet by the chief executive here.”
As for the conclusion regarding their educational purpose and whether there was sufficient usefulness of the research being done, the Judge disagreed on the conclusion and commented on why:
“…what all the authorities make clear is that “usefulness” as that term is applied in the cases constitutes a minimal standard designed only to exclude the “nonsensical” – areas of research and study that are demonstrably devoid of merit. While the concept of merit may raise more difficult, subjective, issues of “taste” where (for example) literature or art is the focus of an educational advancement analysis. I would think that such difficulties are much less likely to arise in matters of science. There may be some areas of research whose objects are so at odds with provable reality that purported scientific pursuit of them can be dismissed as nonsensical or an exercise in certain futility. Attempting to prove that he earth is flat might be one such endeavour. But absence of merit of that sort will be easy to establish (or refute) by reference to objective evidence.
The existence of scientific or academic controversy in a particular area is far from determinative. Nor is an acknowledgement that the goals of the research might only be achieved in the relatively distant future. By way of example only, the mars Society New Zealand Charitable Trust, whose purposes are to encourage and inspire space science and research leading to New Zealand’s participation in the exploration and settlement of Mars, was registered as a charity … the pursuit of such long term goals is likely to yield much useful knowledge along the way, regardless of whether the endpoint is ever achieved. And if that research that will be undertaken in order to work towards such a goal is likely to advance the sum of human knowledge the “usefulness” threshold will be met.”
This analysis is very helpful because it shows just what the Court will view as being “useful” – clearly it is to be interpreted in its widest sense. This is helpful to understand for any charities which may be involved in research and wondering if what they do will qualify. Having performed that analysis above, the Judge turned to the facts of the particular case before her and concluded:
“The evidence is that the proposed research is likely to lead to advances in areas such as organ transplant medicine, in vitro fertilisation, stem cell research, treatment of a range of diseases and disorders and enabling biodiversity…in the absence of clear evidence that cryonics research is “nonsense” and will not advance human knowledge, it matters not whether such research is presently “accepted academic discipline” or “current science” (whatever those terms may actually mean)… In my view the Board erred in its interpretation and application of the “usefulness” test.”
The Judge also concluded based on this that the purposes were clearly charitable under the “advancement of education” head of charitable purposes. For more on charitable purposes see here.
We hope this summary is useful and will help to better understand what research will qualify as being useful. If you have any questions about it feel free to contact us to discuss your situation. We are providing new updates on other cases and developments in the charity sector regularly so sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest developments.
This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should talk to a lawyer about your specific situation. Reproduction is permitted with prior approval and credit being given back to the source. Contact Steven Moe at firstname.lastname@example.org to request this or for any other questions. Copyright © Parry Field Lawyers 2017.