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Charities, trust

An education

The Supreme Court has overturned the Court of Appeal decision Family First New Zealand v Attorney-General. See Family First to keep the home fires burning.

The history of this case is complex. On 15 April 2013 the (then) Charities Registration Board resolved to de-register Family First New Zealand (Family First) as a registered charity on the basis set out in [5] that:

“… First, its main purpose was political and thus non-charitable — it sought to advance points of view about family life which had no self-evident public benefit as a matter of law.  Second, its viewpoint expression was not a charitable purpose for the advancement of religion or education.  Nor was it generally beneficial.  Third, the Board considered Family First had an independent purpose of procuring governmental action consonant with Family First’s own viewpoints.”

Family First was of the view that it qualified as a charity due to its purposes regarding the advancement of education. As set out at [50]:

“Family First’s essential case is that the objects set out in the Trust Deed include the promotion and advancement of research, educating the public and publishing material affecting families, all of which it says exhibit a purpose that falls within the advancement of education.  This is assumed to be of public benefit unless the contrary is shown…”

The Supreme Court agreed that education should not be narrowly interpreted (see [55]). However, for the purposes of the appeal, as noted at [56] the major question is:

“… whether Family First qualifies as advancing education in a charitable sense when its research reports, together with other supposedly educative material, put forward a singular viewpoint on the subject-matter.  Charities law has long recognised a distinction between valid educational objects and merely political or propaganda-based objects.”

Expounding a viewpoint will not necessarily disqualify an entity from charitable status.  However, the question to answer is what side of the line between education and advocacy the viewpoint stands. This is expanded at [90] as follows:

“To determine Family First’s continued eligibility for charity status, the Court must be satisfied Family First has a purpose of advancing education, having regard to the activities it undertakes.  We begin by recording that we see the method by which Family First commissions its research papers as being consistent with the appellant’s contention that the papers were written from a particular viewpoint.”

Put another way, you can say what you are doing comes under a head of charity, but how you do, what you do, will determine whether or not the activities are charitable.

The decision warrants careful reading as much of the analysis is nuanced and needs to be considered in the relevant context. Perhaps the most helpful takeaway is set out by Williams J at [178]:

“Turning then to the indefinite analogous head of charity, similar issues arise, and again, especially with respect to advocacy.  Charities law has always been sceptical of situations where the stated purpose is advocacy for an idea, doctrine or perspective.  This is for two reasons, I suggest.  First, it is inherently difficult to demonstrate that mere advocacy produces tangible outcomes of public utility.  Not impossible, but difficult.  Second, as noted in Greenpeace by reference to the American Restatement on Trusts, “a charitable trust does not exist to give satisfaction to those who believe in the cause it promotes”. In other words, advocacy will often be too self-referential to meet the benefit requirement.  Greenpeace did not change any of this.  Rather, it confirmed that the gateway for pure advocacy-based purposes is narrow and provided a more satisfactory conceptual framework for analysis than did the problematic political purpose exception.”

This is expanded on at [180] as follows:

“… promoting controversial causes or ideas will not of itself be disqualifying. This is consistent with authority and (more importantly) the pluralist underpinnings of our democratic culture. As noted in the education context, the contest of ideas and perspectives is a predicate for a thriving community.  But care is obviously needed, and it is perhaps in this context that manner and means, and the original charitable principle of selflessness, become very important.  An advocacy group that addresses a controversial topic in a balanced way may well be charitable, even if it ultimately favours one side or the other.  Honesty and respect in debate is not self-referential.  In fact it can contribute to social cohesion and the empowerment of individuals while respecting also the communicator’s right to their point of view.  It can assist the community to navigate its way through difficult issues.  And there is certainly no shortage of those right now.”


  • AG v Family First New Zealand [2022] NZSC 80
  • Family First New Zealand v Attorney-General [2020] NZCA 366
  • Re Greenpeace of New Zealand Incorporated [2014] NZSC 105
  • National Anti-Vivisection Society v Inland Revenue Commissioners [1948] AC 31 (HL) at 65 per Lord Simonds [Anti-Vivisection].


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