THE High Court has granted the charity AidWatch special leave to appeal, giving the organisation the chance to run a test case to clarify the definition of charity.
At a sitting in Sydney, High Court justices Gummow and Heydon said there were grounds for the Court to consider whether the Australian Taxation Office should have revoked AidWatch’s charitable status in 2006.
Maurice Blackburn is representing the charity, which is a membership-based watchdog on aid, trade and debt, in the test case. The firm’s senior associate Giri Sivaraman said the case has widespread repercussions throughout the charity sector.
“Today the High Court agreed that there is strong public interest in determining whether an organisation that seeks to influence government policy should have its charitable status revoked,” he said.
The ATO had argued in the case that it was an “inconvenient vehicle” to resolve the matter. Justice Gummow did not agree, and said the role of government in addressing poverty had significantly changed over the past 150 years.
AidWatch chair, James Goodman, said the ATO ruling, which was upheld by the Federal Court last year, had a chilling effect on public debate in the charity sector. Many organizations have been too scared to speak out against government policy, he said.
“This affects charities from the development sector, the environment sector and the social welfare sector. It’s a relief that we now have the chance to have the matter resolved,” Goodman said in a statement.
AidWatch will now make an application to the ATO for assistance to help fund the expensive test case, as well as for indemnity in the event that there is an adverse cost finding made against it. The case will be heard later this year.
Maurice Blackburn has assisted AidWatch since July 2008, when it took the case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.