Since when is upholding the law a political act?

A Parliamentary debate is going to take place tomorrow morning on the RSPCA’s decision to prosecute members of the Heythrop hunt.

Much has been said about the legal expenses of the case, and why the RSPCA chose to pursue this particular hunt.

But some of the questions that are being asked have much broader implications, and the answers could have seriously damaging consequences on what charities do and their independence.

Some MPs seem to object to the possibility that a charity has a right to prosecute as well as a right to campaign. But surely upholding the law is a way in which an organisation can directly further its charitable aims?

Charities are highly regarded for their work in ensuring standards are maintained and enforcing the law when it has been violated:

  • Mind has a Legal Unit that offers support in legal claims, and further improves the lives of its beneficiaries by challenging disability discrimination, ensuring access to care and enforcing protection under the Mental Health Act;
  • The National Autistic Society has achieved some ground breaking results through its legal work, identifying and clarifying gaps in the law to ensure better protection and support for people with autism.

And there are many more.

Of course, using the courts can be a complex and sometimes expensive route, but winning a case can have an extremely positive effect:

  • for the specific individuals involved – enforcing the law by prosecuting those who have disregarded it is surely an effective way of addressing a gross miscarriage of justice and achieving change
  • for a wider impact – prosecution acts as a deterrent to others who may commit similar crimes

Much valuable work is undertaken by charities when investigating offences and enforcing laws that have been disregarded. Prosecutions send a strong message to society that abuse and neglect are not acceptable in a civilised society, and there should be no questioning of charities right to act upon injustice.

It is a serious threat to the rights of people and organisations when MPs start interfering with the power we all have to bring a prosecution, simply because they happen to dislike the outcome.

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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