Greenpeace wins final charity court battle

  • Breaking
  • 06/08/2014

Greenpeace has won a long-running battle to have its political advocacy recognised as a charitable act with a decision released by the Supreme Court this afternoon.

More used to fighting for environmental causes, Greenpeace has been fighting the definition of its campaigning activities as non-charitable for nearly 10 years.

The organisation was one of many which lost its charitable status under changes to the Charities Act in 2005. The Charities Commission determined Greenpeace did not meet the new standards because its promotion of disarmament and peace was not charitable.

In 2010 Greenpeace took the Commission to the High Court to challenge the dismissal of its application for charity status, but the court found its activities were more political than educational, and therefore not charitable.

The decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in November 2012, allowing Greenpeace to apply for re-registration. However, the court found the organisation could only apply for charitable status if political advocacy was not its primary purpose.

Greenpeace challenged that finding in the Supreme Court last year, arguing limits should not be placed on political advocacy.

The court's decision was delivered today and clarified the definition of a charity, saying political advocacy should not exclude an organisation from achieving charity status.

Chief Justice Sian Elias says a "blanket exclusion is unnecessary".

Greenpeace will now decide whether to reapply for charity status, which brings financial benefits.

Executive director Bunny McDiarmid says the decision "makes New Zealand's democracy a little stronger".

"It means that the Supreme Court has now recognised that trying to change our world for the better, and taking on government to do that, is a public good."

Any application will need to be considered by the Department of Internal Affairs chief executive and the Charities Board.

The timeline of events:

  • June 2008: Greenpeace New Zealand applies to register as a charity with the Charities Commission.
  • April 2010: Application is declined, with Charities Commission saying while most of Greenpeace's activities were charitable, promotion of disarmament and peace was not.
  • December 2010: Greenpeace appeal the decision in the High Court.
  • May 2011: The High Court finds Greenpeace shouldn't be able to register as a charity because 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 says the organisation's peace and disarmament purposes were broadly charitable and the Charities Commission (now the Charities Services) should reconsider the application.  
  • 14 May 2013: Supreme Court hearing to challenge two of the Court of Appeal's findings, arguing that restrictions should not be put on political advocacy and 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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