Ruling gives protest groups hope

One of the two Marlborough groups refused registration as charities because of their "political" nature intend to register again after a Supreme Court ruling.

The court ruled earlier this week that a "political purpose" exclusion should no longer be applied in New Zealand, saying political and charitable purposes were not mutually exclusive in all cases.

It determined that section 5 of the Charities Act did not impose a political purpose exclusion, exempting only those that were no more than "ancillary" but rather provided an exemption for non-charitable activities if ancillary.

"A blanket exclusion is unnecessary and distracts from the underlying inquiry whether a purpose is of public benefit within the sense the law recognises as charitable."

Two Marlborough organisations, Sustain our Sounds and the Guardians of the Sounds, were declined registration as charities by the Charities Commission last year because of their "political" nature.

Both groups opposed New Zealand King Salmon's application for eight new salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds in areas where marine farming was prohibited under Marlborough District Council plans.

Sustain our Sounds chairwoman Clare Pinder said the group was told by the Charities Commission that it was declined on the basis of the Appeal Court decision, which has now been quashed.

They were told they didn't qualify for registration as a charity "because it has an independent non-charitable purpose, being a political purpose to procure governmental actions".

Pinder said the group intended to apply again for registration as a charity.

"The Supreme Court has wisely ruled that political advocacy for a charitable purpose is allowed. In a democracy citizens need to be able to challenge the Government on things they are concerned about.

"The Supreme Court is sending clear messages to Government that it cannot pursue its objectives of expanding marine farming, deep sea oil drilling, fracking and other environmentally damaging activities without considering the voice of the people, and the impact on the environment."

Guardian of the Sounds chairman Paul Keating was overseas and unable to be contacted.

The National Business Review has quoted a specialist charities lawyer as saying hundreds of groups across the political spectrum would be affected by the Supreme Court decision.

Lawyer Sue Barker said hundreds of trusts, foundations and lobby groups were affected by the removal of the political exemption.

Barker said what was charitable was still a difficult question based on facts, but the Supreme Court had moved the law forward in terms of political interaction.

"I would advise all of those who have been affected by the approach to reconsider their position," she said.

As well as tax exemptions, becoming registered has become more important to groups wanting to remain attractive to funders.

Barker said the decision would also be welcomed by existing registered charities, as the application of the political advocacy rule has had a chilling effect. She said charities feared losing their registration if they spoke out.

"Charities which were working at the coalface were effectively being silenced."