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All in a good cause
Cilex Journal – May 2013

Charities can require legal advice across a range of fields. Mark Smulian looks at their needs and how Chartered Legal Executives can get involved

From the 'chugger' who accosts pedestrians for donations to the sophisticated campaigns to raise awareness of an issue, charities are after money, lots of it.

Causes range from the obvious, such as to provide relief after natural disasters, to the obscure, such as to fund research into diseases of which few may have heard.

All this means charities need legal help in three ways: in-house if they can afford this; as needed from firms that specialise in the sector; and from legally-qualified people willing to volunteer some time.

Because charities cover such a vast range of subjects both at home and abroad, the matters on which they need legal help are equally wide.

Almost all at some time must deal with legacies, contracts, leases, employment and conformity with laws that govern their work, overseen by the Charity Commission.

For love, not money?

For Chartered Legal Executives, charities offer a number of interesting areas of work, but may be hard to break into because of the relative lack of direct employment.

Philip Warford, a Chartered Legal Executive who runs Brighton-based Renaissance Legal, works with charities on a pro bono basis with wills, trusts and legacies.

He explains: "Paid work is rare in charities, though possibly the very large ones might do it. We support four or five charities a year. Most have seen reduced funding in the last few years so they have lost staff and want to use pro bono to supplement their resources.

"You have to draw a line though, as we're a business and can't spend too much time on it."

Renaissance allocates pro bono work to interested staff as "there is no point in asking people to work pro bono on something they are not engaged with", Mr Warford says.

Another route favoured by charities is to appoint trustees or board members who have legal backgrounds, "so they get fairly free access to expertise that way", he notes.

Even Oxfam, one of the largest charities, has a very small in-house legal team and relies on volunteers and pro bono help for much of its work, company secretary Joss Saunders says.

"There is a very large range of legal work, but one key requirement is to have contracts and leases in the right legal framework for the country we are working in," he suggests. "We are a small team of three solicitors and two others for 100 countries. We cannot do everything so we have good relationships with lawyers in private practice who will work for us pro bono or who join us on secondments or as volunteers."

There is often scope for legally-qualified people from around the world to help Oxfam. "If working under a common law code in India, Tanzania or the English-speaking Caribbean, for example, I can be reasonably sure that I understand things, but under a civil law code it is quite different, and you need a lawyer who works in that environment," Mr Saunders says.

In the UK Oxfam deals with contracts and leases for some 700 shops and one of its lawyers is a property specialist._Mr Saunders says: "We cannot take on more legal staff in the present financial climate so we need volunteers, and there may be some scope for CILEx members. Usually, we want someone who works elsewhere two or three days a week, or who is recently retired, and can commit for a while, as it's difficult to cope with short-term volunteers."

At the other end of the scale, Srabani Sen, chief executive of Contact A Family - a small charity that works with families with disabled children - uses subject specialists rather than lawyers to "comb through the legislative and regulatory changes to make sure we keep up to date so that we can give the right advice to our service users".

Legal burdens

Ms Sen says charities are under pressure from a combination of fewer grants being available from the public sector and trusts, and, in her organisation's case, from a mass of complex changes to education, health and welfare rights legislation.

"There is nowadays a far higher emphasis on contracts with central and local government, as opposed to grants," she says. "Our finance director or service director would go through contracts, and if there is something unusual, only then would we go to a lawyer."

Ms Sen also sits on the board of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, from where she has seen increased concern among colleagues about the TUPE legislation.

This affects both services and staff contracted out by public bodies to charities, and mergers between charities.

John Akers, head of legal services at the Donkey Sanctuary, meanwhile calls on outside legal help "rather like a GP with a specialist".

Otherwise he is largely on his own, even when dealing with the charity's branches in Kenya, India, Mexico and Ethiopia on contracts and leases.

"When working abroad, there can be suspicions that something is setting up as a non-governmental organisation to be used as a money laundering vehicle and with Ethiopia, although I didn't go there, I had to work closely with its embassy in London to set it up," he says.

"In the UK we have 12-14 staff in six centres and I have to do disclosure and barring checks, leases and licences." He also deals with litigation over mistreatment of animals.

Mr Akers has overseen both a merger with a small charity that provides riding for disabled children and incorporation of the Donkey Sanctuary's trustee body.

"The charity was set up 40 years ago with trustees in an unincorporated body, but I had been arguing for some time that that was inappropriate for a larger body because of the personal liability of trustees. Now it's limited by guarantee. That did involve outside lawyers and part of the job is for me to know when to call for outside help."