Charities and almshouses: a judgment on security of tenure

A recent appeal case (Stewart & Ors [2016] WWCA CIV 1247 (8 December 2016)) helps to provide some clarity on a charity’s position when it needs to obtain possession of a property where the tenant is claiming protected rights.

In this case Mrs Watts was claiming a right to stay in occupation of an almshouse. There are approximately 35,000 almshouse residents in the country which gives this judgment a wider relevance.

Mrs Watts had signed a letter of occupation which confirmed she was permitted to occupy as a beneficiary of the charity but would not be a tenant or have a legal interest. The trustees of the charity had the right to end the arrangement in the case of serious misconduct, and in this case there was evidence of the anti-social behaviour provided to the court.

It was decided in the appeal that the trustees’ decision to end the occupation was reasonable, and the judge also held that the trustees did not owe any fiduciary duties to Mrs Watts because the trustees of a charity do not owe fiduciary duties to the objects of a charity.

The court were satisfied on the facts that the intention of the letter was to create a licence; the trustees could only properly carry out the trust’s charitable purposes – to assist those in need, hardship or distress – if a personal licence capable of being revoked was granted.

A further ground of the appeal was a possible breach of Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights when read in conjunction with Article 8 which covers the right to respect for a person’s private and family life. The argument put forward by Mrs Watts was that she was discriminated against on the basis of her status as an almsperson and/or the object of the charity (as compared to social housing tenants).  The court did not accept that ground.

The overriding theme of the judgment was that denial of security of tenure to almspersons is justifiable as a proportionate measure which secures a fair balance between the interests of the charities and current and future almspersons.

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