Top court rules Greenpeace can register as charity

Greenpeace New Zealand Managing Director Bunny McDiarmid

The Supreme Court has ruled charities can engage in political activities, allowing Greenpeace’s appeal.

The incorporated society's application to be included on the Charities Register was declined in 2010.

Following a lengthy court battle, however, it can apply for reinstatement, which will bring financial benefits. (see the judgment and media statement attached)

In a judgment released this afternoon, a Supreme Court majority comprising Chief Justice Sian Elias, Justice John McGrath and Justice Susan Glazebrook said the rule of exclusion for those with a political purpose should no longer be applied in New Zealand.

The minority, Justice William Young and Justice Terence Arnold, said the court should not differ from the plain language used in the Charities Act.

They said the rule that political advocacy is not charitable is defensible not only on the basis of the authorities but also as a matter of policy and practicality.

Timeline

June 2008: Greenpeace New Zealand apply to the Charities Commission to be registered as a charity.

April 2010: The Charities Commission declines Greenpeace’s application. The Commission said that, although the bulk of Greenpeace’s purposes and activities, such as the promotion of the protection and preservation of nature and the environment, were charitable, the promotion of disarmament and peace would not be charitable.

December 2010: Greenpeace appeal to the High Court.

May 2011: The High Court finds that Greenpeace should not be able to register as a charity because the organisation’s nuclear disarmament purposes were independent political purposes and therefore non-charitable.

September 2012: Greenpeace head to the Court of Appeal.

November 2012: The Court of Appeal agrees with Greenpeace, and says that the organisation’s peace and disarmament purposes were broadly charitable and the Charities Commission (now called the Charities Services) should consider the application again. The Court agreed that political advocacy did not disqualify an organisation from being a charity, as long as it was not a ‘primary purpose’. The Court also said that any activities carried out by a charity that were illegal would preclude that organisation from being a charity.

14 May 2013: Greenpeace heads to the Supreme Court to challenge two of the Court of Appeal’s findings, arguing that restrictions should not be put on political advocacy, as it is not consistent with New Zealand’s participatory democracy for there to be a general prohibition on participation. The organisation also questioned whether the Court was able to judge where public benefit lies around political advocacy.

6 August 2014: The Supreme Court hands down its decision.

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