North London Central Mosque Trust v Policy Exchange & Anor
Reference:  EWHC 3311 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 26 Nov 2009
Summary: Libel - Unincorporated charitable trust - Strike out - Whether reputation of unincorporated charitable trust could be the subject of defamation claim
Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
Richard Munden (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Farooq Bajwa & Co for the Claimant; Collyer Bristow for the Defendants
C, an unincorporated charitable trust responsible for the management of the North London Central Mosque, brought a libel claim in respect of: (1) a report entitled ‘The hijacking of British Islam: How extremist literature is subverting mosques in the UK’ authored by D2 and published by D1, a think tank, which was reported on the front pages of numerous newspapers, and; (2) words spoken by a representative of D1 on a BBC Newsnight broadcast.
Some time after service of their Defence, the Ds raised for the first time the issue of C’s unincorporated status, and three months later issued an application to strike out C’s claim on that basis. C cross-applied to substitute trustees of C as the claimant, in order to maintain an action on behalf of the charitable trust. Ds conceded that the charitable trust has a reputation separate and distinct from that of its trustees, but challenged that any defamation action could be brought in respect of that reputation.
Whether an action for defamation could be maintained in respect of the reputation of an unincorporated charitable trust.
Striking out the claim:
The trustees could only sue on behalf of C if C could itself sue. Not having been incorporated, C did not exist as a legal entity. Accordingly it had no reputation. While a non-corporate charity could “in a loose sense, have a good or bad reputation which might encourage or discourage people from giving it money,” a reputaton in such a loose sense was “not good enough” for a claim in libel.
No useful analogy could be drawn with trade unions, which in certain circumstances can sue or be sued. Parliament had not conferred capacity to sue on C or on charitable trusts in general.
This judgment leaves the law in what may be thought an unsatisfactory and irrational state. Members of unincorporated associations can undoubtedly bring claims in passing off to protect those associations’ charitable or trading reputation or goodwill, so that the charitable trust here could sue to protect itself from an injurious association with, for example, another mosque that was accused of distributing extremist literature; yet the effect of this judgment is that if it is the charitable trust that is itself being (falsely) accused of distributing such literature, then it is deprived of any remedy. The judgment is also inconsistent with the cases on unincorporated trading bodies (partnerships) which make clear that although they are not legal entities their members can nevertheless bring defamation claims in respect of damage to the bodies’ distinct reputations.