Decision Date: May 1, 2012
Link: Case Summary Document
Citation: [2012] EWHC (Ch) 1111 (High Court of Justice, Chancery Division, Norris J)

Summary:

This English case concerned a religion-based unincorporated registered charitable association, the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha (SGRS). At the heart of the dispute was a doctrinal difference within the religious group.

The association based its activities around a temple in Southall, London. ‘Ravidassias’ are followers of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji (born 1377 CE). They believe that he spearheaded the fight against manmade discrimination based on caste, colour or creed and preached the lofty ideals of socialism, secularism, equality and fraternity, and that he taught the lessons of universal brotherhood, tolerance and ‘love your neighbour’. These teachings have a particular resonance for his followers, many of whom were drawn from the Hindu caste of Untouchables. Some of the teachings of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji (40 hymns and 1 verse) were incorporated into the Sikh Holy Book, the Shri Guru Granth Sahib (the Granth).

According to its constitution, there are two separate bodies responsible for the governance of the SGRS:

1.       an elected Executive Committee; and

2.       eleven appointed trustees (who cannot be members of the Executive Committee) and who elect a chairman from amongst their number.

In April 2011 elections for the Executive Committee were overdue. On 5 April 2011 the existing Executive Committee placed an advertisement in a Sikh newspaper setting out the proposed membership registration timetable. It included the following statement:

PLEASE NOTE: According to constitution of Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha Southall our relegious (sic) Guru is Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and we do not endorse any other holy book. To become member of Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha you must belong to Ravidassia Community and belive (sic) in Shri Guru Granth Shib Ji…..

This Note was indicative of an emerging doctrinal dispute about the results of the ‘research of Holy Scriptures of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji’ referred to in Clause 2(a) of the Constitution. Clause 2(a) provided that one of the objects of the association was:

To worship almighty God in accordance with the teachings and philosophy, mission and principles of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji from the Holy Book of Shri Guru Granth Sahib and research of Holy Scriptures of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji.

The research referred to in clause 2(a) led to the compilation of what was suggested to be a new Holy Book of the Ravidassias known as ‘Shri Guru Ravidass Amrit Bani’ (the Amrit Bani), promulgated on the birthday celebration of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji on 30 January 2010. Some Ravidassias accept the Amrit Bani, while some Ravidassias (particularly those originating in the Sikh communities of the Punjab) do not. Thus, there were disputing claims about one holy book, the Granth, and another, the Amrit Bani.

The claimants protested by letter about the requirement of belief only in the Granth, since there were members of the association who were Buddhists, Christians, followers of Swami, or other groups, and pointed out that there was now a dedicated text for the Ravidassias, namely the Amrit Bani.

There was no response to this letter from the Executive Council, so the claimants appealed to the appointed trustees. The trustees allegedly met and considered the matter on 8 May 2011, but this was not communicated to the claimants. Therefore, the claimants applied for an injunction to restrain the Executive Committee from requiring persons seeking registration as members of the SGRS to affirm belief in the Granth.

However, although the action clearly constituted ‘charity proceedings’, no application had been made to the Charity Commission, as was required under what was then Section 33(2) of the Charities Act 1993. A written application was subsequently made to the Charity Commission on 12 May 2011. Consent for the injunction proceedings was refused on the grounds that the Chairman of the Trustees had indicated a willingness to postpone or cancel the registration of members, which was due to commence on the 15 May 2011; and to proceed under the terms of the constitution to resolve the dispute under Clause 8(d), or if the internal resolution mechanism should fail, to engage in a mediation process.

A meeting with the appointed trustees, which proceeded without the presence of the claimants, who had refused to attend, resulted in an amended notice being published, making clear that ‘the [original] notice was not intended to restrict membership’. The claimants would not accept this outcome. As His Honour commented (at [14]):

This was partly because they could not accept that the publication of a Notice (in the original or a revised form) was constitutional. It was partly because they wanted to advance their own cause in relation to the Amrit Bani – an issue that they wanted referred to mediation. The Claimants indicated that they would only consider withdrawal of their claim ‘provided that they are also given use of one of the halls for worship according to the Amrit Bani’. The Solicitors for the Executive Committee pointed out that the status of the Amrit Bani was not an issue in the proceedings that had been commenced.

Another application was then made to the Charity Commission to commence proceedings, but was again refused. The reason given by the Charity Commission was that the matter in dispute was a doctrinal one, and was not capable of resolution in the courts. In addition, proceedings would not be proportional to the question to be resolved, and charitable funds would be wasted on litigation which should be spent on charitable purposes. Moreover, no issues of mismanagement or improper procedure were involved.

This case arose when the claimants sought to obtain permission for the main proceedings to go ahead, under section 115(5) of the Charities Act 2011. Section 115(5) provides that:

Where subsections (1) to (4) require the taking of charity proceedings to be authorised by an order of the Commission, the proceedings may nevertheless be entertained or proceeded with if, after the order had been applied for and refused, leave to take the proceedings was obtained from one of the judges of the High Court attached to the Chancery Division.

This is a matter of original jurisdiction of the court, and not an appellate jurisdiction from decisions of the Charity Commission. His Honour said (at [28]) that the approach taken should be:

…if the Applicants have a legally sustainable dispute, is the commencement of litigation the best (or the least worst) course in the interests of the charity as a whole to deal with that dispute? Litigation may be the best course for the Applicants to pursue to achieve their objective. But it is the charity’s interest (not that of the Applicants or proposed Respondents) that is the focus of the inquiry.

A number of steps were involved in taking this approach:

1.       Is there a relevant dispute? His Honour said that there was, relating solely to the terms of the Notice placed in the newspaper. The dispute about the proper place of the Amrit Bani was irrelevant.

2.       Do the claimants have a legally sustainable case? His Honour said that they had.

3.       Is the legally sustainable case presented in a proper manner? In this case, the answer was yes.

4.       What impact will the resolution of the dispute have on the charity’s funds? The claimants estimated their costs at £120,000, and Executive Committee estimated their costs at £25,000. Assuming these costs could be met by the association, there was a considerable amount to be met from the charity’s funds.

Therefore, was litigation the charity’s best (or least worst) option? His Honour held that the questions for resolution were (at [34]):

…whether the revised form of advertisement is lawfully consistent with the Constitution, and whether the Executive Committee ought to insist upon publication in that form even though there is a sustainable argument that it will erroneously deter some people from applying for membership.

Was there a significant chance that an accommodation could be reached which did not involve expensive court proceedings’? His Honour said (at [35]) that there was:

It must first be realised that the litigation cannot possibly settle any doctrinal question as the relationship between the Granth and the ‘Holy Scriptures of Shri Guru Ravidass Ji’ or as to the status of the Amrit Bani. If there is a dispute about whether the Public Notice faithfully reflects Clause 2(a) of the Constitution the Court will decide that not by reference to doctrinal arguments but by reference to the usage of the Ravidass Sabha…. It must next be appreciated that neither the Claimants nor the Executive Committee (or even the Trustees) can be assured [of] being able to look to the charity’s funds for reimbursement of their legal expenses (particularly if those with a prospective claim to indemnity deliberately embark upon a course known to be controversial and acknowledged not to be intended to restrict membership). Litigation may prove necessary to secure that those entitled and wishing to be members of the Ravidass Sabha have a fair opportunity to register as such. But if the contending parties undertake a realistic appraisal of their respective positions in the light of this judgment then in my view it ought to be possible to prepare a membership book and formulate an electoral procedure (having regard to past usage) which will enable the practice of the Ravidass Sabha to reflect the wishes of the majority of its members (and not the wishes of the Claimants on the one hand or the Executive Committee on the other).

His Honour was thus giving a heavy hint to the parties to resolve their differences outside the court, with particular reference to the issue of who might end up bearing the costs. He deferred the application for permission to proceed for two months, so that an accommodation could be reached, but allowed the claimants to reintroduce it ‘as a last resort’ if no agreement could be reached at the end of the two month period.

The case may be viewed at: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/1111.html

Implications of this case

This case illustrates that the courts could never be concerned with settling a doctrinal dispute. However, His Honour characterised the case as one not about doctrine, but rather about the interpretation of the Public Notice which had been published, and appeared to restrict membership of the association. The case also points to the costs issue which is so important for associations pursuing litigation. In this case, His Honour made it clear that if the parties proceeded, none of them might be able to claim an indemnity for costs from the charity.