Having pondered this, we submitted an application to the Charity Commission last April. This was the start of a long process. The Charity Commission supplies a model constitution for applicants. This is good news and bad news. It certainly makes life easier in working out the intricacies of how to govern a charity covering everything from how many trustees and their terms of office to how to have meetings and make decisions. The bad news was that the Charity Commission doesn’t allow any electronic amendments to its model so submitting the application meant painstakingly printing off and manually amending 30 pages, then scanning them back in again.
One of the most important parts of the constitution is the charitable objects. Wild Law UK proposed:
- To promote, for the benefit of the public and the environment, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment by promoting rights of nature and wild law principles embedded in our legal systems and
- To advance the education of the public in wild law principles, which will enhance the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment.
Having made an initial application, the Charity Commission then asked further penetrating questions. This is quite normal, as anyone who has gone through the process will know. But at the end of the day – in October – the Commission wrote to say that Wild Law UK wasn’t capable of becoming a charity.
One of the reasons given may not come as that much of a surprise. By seeking a fundamental change in the basis of the law as a primary purpose, Wild Law UK is a seen by the Commission as a politically campaigning body and this is incompatible with being a charity. The Charity Commission said: “Securing laws for the Earth is a non-charitable political purpose directed towards a change in the law. The organisation has demonstrated that it recognises not only that this is a political purpose but that it is one of some scale requiring a radical shift of the legal system and the philosophy underpinning it. It states that legal systems must recognise the Rights of Nature. In supporting the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, it promotes a change or development in policy by the supranational body, the UN, a non-charitable political purpose. Since crimes against peace such as the organisation’s expression in international treaty including the UN Charter and Statute of Rome, securing the recognition of Ecocide as a Crime Against Peace represents a non-charitable purpose of changing trans-national governmental policy”.
The second main ground of failure is more surprising perhaps. By having charitable objects which talk about benefiting “the public and the environment” the Charity Commission says “the objects are in a form which is expressly not charitable for the public benefit, but instead for the benefit of the public and the environment”. It elaborates: “These objects are not, in terms, for the public benefit but expressly also for the benefit of something other than the public. They are not exclusively charitable”. Those who have studied Wild Law have long argued that environmental benefit directly equates with public benefit. As humans are part of nature they are inextricable from their environment. The Charity Commission seems to be doing a good job of making Wild Law UK’s point that the separation of public and environment is the problem with current legal systems, and if we really want to secure a long term and fundamental shift in thinking towards a more environmentally sustainable future for all on the planet, we must narrow this gap
There are other points in the Commission’s letter which we’re happy to share if of interest. The Commission highlights that Wild Law is an unclear concept with many interpretations and a common meaning is still wanting. But Wild Law UK’s commitment to education would help address that, although the kind of education we have in mind is apparently, not “in a charitable sense, for the public benefit”.
The steering group is not planning to appeal the decision as we do accept that seeking a change in the law, as a primary purpose, is not charitable as the law currently defines this. But we will continue to work towards better understanding of what public benefit really is and why the “charitable sense” is not serving the public’s best interests.
The process has been instructive and we are grateful to the Charity Commission for taking some time to consider the question properly. The decision raises some important issues.
Wild Law UK will continue to operate as an unincorporated body and we hope you will continue to support our work.
By Vicki Elcoate and the Wild Law Steering Group