Case Brief: Family First NZ v A-G

May 12, 2021

Summary

The Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the High Court and the Charities Registration Board to deregister Family First New Zealand from the Charities Register and declared that Family First qualified for registration as a charity. The Court of Appeal found that the activities of Family First, while political and controversial to some New Zealanders, is for a charitable purpose. This is the latest application of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Greenpeace that some political purposes are charitable.

Background

Family First New Zealand is a registered charity under the Charities Act 2015. In2013, the Charities Registration Board decided to deregister Family First because the Board considered Family First’s advocacy of its particular views about the family as being for a non-charitable political purpose without a self-evident public benefit. A judicial review in 2015 determined that the Board’s decision to deregister Family First was incorrect because the court did not follow the Supreme Court approach in Greenpeace and was instructed to reconsider its decision.

In 2017 the Charities Registration Board again decided to deregister Family First for similar reasons: Family First’s main activity was advocacy for the advancement of its policies. The Board did not consider this to be a benefit to the public. Family First again sought judicial review of the decision.

The Case

The Court of Appeal addressed three main questions in its consideration:

a)      whether the High Court was wrong to find Family First was not a trust for charitable educational purposes;

b)      whether the High Court was wrong to find Family First is not a trust for the purpose of promoting families and marriage as a benefit to society; and

c)      if the High Court was wrong on any of those conclusions, whether Family First has a non-charitable purpose of more than an ancillary nature which would disqualify it from being a registered charity?

Charitable purpose – advancement of education

Section 5of the Charities Act 2005 sets out four categories of charitable purposes. The second of these is “the advancement of education or religion”. Family First claimed that some of its organization’s primary objects: to “promote and advance research and policy”, “educate to educate the public”, and “produce and publish relevant and stimulating material” qualified under this category.

The Court ruled that the advancement of education should be interpreted “very widely” and educational activity “will extend to those providing for the improvement of a useful branch of human knowledge and its public dissemination.” Education about the family is “for a public good” and fell within the second charitable category. The Court ruled Family First met the minimum standard of having an educative purpose by the conducting research and reporting that research adequately.

Charitable purpose – any other matter beneficial to the community

The Court also looked at the law’s development over time to assess whether Family First’s activity is analogous to other charitable purposes under common law.

Family First argued its advocacy for family values and marriage being a strength was a benefit to society, while the High Court ruled the focus on the “traditional family” was too “conservative and controversial” to be a charitable purpose.

Applying the Supreme Court’s decision in Greenpeace the majority decided that the advocacy in support of marriage or core family values was “not dissimilar to the examples given in Greenpeace of world peace and nuclear disarmament.” Some forms of political advocacy  benefited the community.

The Court held that Family First’s object of advancing the family satisfied the fourth category of charitable purpose.

 Non-charitable, non-ancillary purposes

The Court then looked at whether Family First had any non-ancillary purpose that were non-charitable that would disqualify it from maintaining registration. The Court asked whether specific controversial issues Family First advocated for where for a non-charitable purpose that was more than ancillary.  

The Court looked at various policies and public statements made by Family First over a range of matters. Taken together these statements reflected the charitable objects of Family First, with a few non-charitable exceptions.

The Court concluded Family First’s non-charitable advocacy on any singular issue was ancillary to the overall charitable purposes of education and support of the family and marriage which were “generally constant over time”. But the Court warned that Family First will have to monitor these activities and ensure they are kept ancillary.

 

Conclusion

The Court allowed the appeal and ruled that the Board and the High Court erred in deciding Family First was disqualified from remaining a registered charity. It made a declaration stating Family First qualified.

This is another case that applies the decision of the Supreme Court in Greenpeace, allowing for advocacy on political matters to be charitable purpose. This 2 to 1 decision could have gone either way, and demonstrates against how this application of Greenpeace is on a case by case basis. As public views around benefits to the community changes, political advocates may find themselves moving towards or away from the protections of the Charities Act.

 If you would like to know more about the application of charities law, please contact Patrick Corish.

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