Solicitors in Westminster, London
Places of worship - how public is public worship?
Places of worship – how public is public worship? What can we learn from the experience of Wembley Central Masjid?
In the recent case of Bhamani v Sattar  EWHC 2488 (Ch) (17 September 2020) Judge Leech QC set out the powers of trustees to exclude people from their functional property (that is property that must be used for the purposes of the charity). In that case the property was Wembley Central Masjid - a place of worship and a community centre.
It is important to re-iterate that taking decisions about the use and occupation of charity property is the function of the managing trustees (often a committee of management or an executive committee). It is not a function of the holding or custodian trustees (that is, those persons who are registered at HM Land Registry as holding title to the property).
It is important to note that trustees continue to have the right to exclude individuals and groups where this protects the charity, is consistent with the objects and complies with their duties as trustees to uphold the general law.
Beneficiaries of a charity (including members) have no absolute right to access the benefits on offer. Benefits are made available at the discretion of the trustees, and can be withdrawn.
The trustees named at the Land Registry as holding the property do so as holding trustees on behalf of the charity and must act only in accordance with the proper instructions of the managing trustees.
What was at issue?
This was an application for an injunction. Put very simply, the charity trustees wished to exclude a group of members from the premises on the grounds that the individuals were causing disruption and undermining the management committee, because they disagreed with the decisions and actions of the recently elected committee of management. The judgement details a serious disagreement between two differing groups. This is not unusual and is not confined to Mosques and Masjid's. The use of codes of conduct, membership registers and communications are all noted as factors in the breakdown of relationships in this case.
What was decided?
In the case before him, Judge Leech, QC stated that "I accept that the Management Committee may exclude members of the public and, indeed, individual members of the Community where this action promotes the objects of the charity and the interests of the Community as a whole", "But I do not accept that the committee has an absolute or unfettered right to exclude members of the Community without regard to their duties as charitable trustees."
The court declined to grant an injunction on the basis of undertakings given by the persons excluded, relating to their conduct and behaviours whilst on the premises. This allowed them to continue to attend for prayers.
What can we learn from this case?
More than just confirmation that a trustee can exclude a beneficiary from charity property in some circumstances, we can glean other useful lessons from this judgement.
The lessons from this case focus on the duties of trustees in particular in understanding the terms of their constitution.
- Whilst beneficiaries do not have the right to benefit, trustees cannot unilaterally restrict the rights of members to access premises unless to do so is in the interest of the charity and the attainment of its objects.
- The analysis provided in the judgement, handed down on 17 September 2020, implies that there were fundamental breaches of the administrative provisions of the charity's constitution and that its terms (such as how title to property was to be held) had not been abided by. It also highlights the inherent difficulties where an unincorporated charity owns and occupies property.
- Trustees should ensure that in pursuing the declared charitable objects of their charity, they abide by their constitution and agree policies and procedures that are unambiguous and practical.
- The case highlights the need for members to exercise their functions, in electing committee members for example, carefully; and to understand what their rights and obligations are. Abiding by a code of conduct is a standard condition of membership, and careful thought needs to go into how to word and enforce such a Code.
How public is public worship?
Charitable places of worship should be open to all who wish to attend them. Trustees can only exclude members or attendees where this is required:
- to comply with the law;
- to protect the reputation of the charity;
- to protect its property from harm or damage;
- to further the objects of the charity.
What can trustees do?
Trustees should reflect on the governance arrangements and the governing document of their charity. Is it still fit for purpose? Is it clear? Is it being complied with? Reviews of policies and the terms and conditions of membership should be undertaken. A review of all property holdings and the details recorded at HM Land Registry should be undertaken.
Professional advice is likely to be needed, and LBMW offer a wide range of support services for charities. Visit www.LBMW.com or contact Khalid Sofi (khalid.sofi@LBMW.com) or Jane Grenfell (Jane.Grenfell@LBMW.com) for more information or advice.
The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for general information purposes only. The contents are copyright of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams LLP. All rights reserved.