The Hall Saga

 

We have had an Apology from the Charity Commission (CC). [LINK] 

      They accept that had they got it right Kelly Bray would still have a Hall,

      that they shouldn't have told Cornwall Federation of Womens Institutes (CFWI) that it was theirs,

      and they should not have written the letter telling the Land registry it belonged to CFWI - because it didn't. 

It would seem that the hall rightly belonged to the village and that it has been taken from us due to incompetence on the part of the Charity Commission and greed on the part of the Cornwall Federation of Women's Institutes (CFWI).

The wonderful ladies of the KBWI back in 1937 negotiated with the King's estates for some land and raised the money to build the Hall. They did so in order to improve the amenity of their village not to provide an investment for the CFWI. CFWI never had any moral right to it. It now appears they had no legal right either.

The ladies of KBWI always ran it as a de facto village hall keeping a separate account. In 2011 they were down to six elderly members, and there was a distinct possibility that KBWI would have to close.  Wishing to preserve the legacy of their predecessors they came up with a plan to transfer responsibility for the hall to the Kelly Bray Residents Association Village Hall Committee.

The King had provided the land for a specified purpose "for an Institute for the Women of Kelly Bray" and this counts as a "Charitable Designation" so the Charity Commission had to agree to any plan. At the time an "institute" was a word popular for a meeting place. For example Kelly Bray already had a Men's Institute. Back in 2012 it was pointed out to the CC. that the beneficiaries of the designation were "the Women of Kelly Bray" not "the Women's Institute" but this was ignored and it turns out shouldn't have been. They said it was part of KBWI's charitable property and the governing document was the WI constitution. We believe, based on later rulings, that it was not a part of KBWI's charitable property but that they acted as the trustees of what was in effect the 1937 charitable trust, separate from their own charitable objectives as detailed in the ever changing WI constitution.

Communications with the Charity Commission dragged on. In 2013 KBWI had to go into suspension as the ladies were unable to form a committee. Towards the end of 2014 a final attempt was made jointly by a solicitor acting for KBWI and one acting for CFWI.  The CC case worker said that the ladies of the former KBWI were no longer trustees so he would not deal with them further and he told CFWI that the hall was now part of their charitable property and suggested they sell it and use the money towards their charitable aims.  Our solicitor said he knew of nothing in law which supported that view but as the Commission refused to deal further with KBWI or their solicitor their only hope was to get CFWI to go back to the Commission. With that aim in mind KBWI told CFWI that the hall would not be handed over until CFWI produced evidence of ownership. A reasonable demand one would have thought. The ladies of KBWI were mainly elderly so they gave the job of looking after the Hall to the Resident's Association Hall Committee. Their aim was to keep the Hall in a usable condition until such time as the legal situation was resolved. The Committee paid the bills (Insurance, Water, Fire safety, Electricity) did essential repairs and raised the funds necessary. 

Evidence suggests that CFWI's solicitor knew the Charity Commission had got it wrong but (presumably) under instruction from CFWI set about obtaining possession of the Hall; starting by breaking into the Hall, changing the locks and posting a scary notice claiming it was the property of CFWI and that there would be dire consequence if anyone entered it. We changed the locks back again. CFWI set the police on us - wasting police time as it was a civil matter. A month or two later each member of the hall committee received a registered letter threatening legal action and claiming that if they went ahead with this the individual would be liable for substantial legal expenses. Those involved took a considerable risk in refusing to relinquish the hall.  They did not know the intricacies of the law but based on nothing more than a sense of natural justice they continued to insist that CFWI first prove they owned it.

In one letter there was a whole series of demands which we were told we had to comply with in order to avoid litigation. As well as demanding we hand over the hall it demanded that the "KBWI trustees" sign it over to CFWI. An interesting demand because the Charity Commission had said the ladies were no longer trustees - the very reason CC had refused to deal with them further. Now if CFWI's solicitor accepted CC's view that KBWI were no longer trustees and that CFWI now were, he was asking KBWI ladies to fraudulently sign a document which presumably he intended to use to establish ownership.  On the other hand if he didn't accept CCs view and thought KBWI were still the trustees then clearly he thought the CC was wrong and therefore CFWI had no legal right to the Hall. In which case he should have gone back to the CC to clarify the case. Whichever way you look at it, it was dodgy and clearly showed that despite all the threats and bluster the solicitor had found no way in law of claiming legal title. Breaking into the hall was an illegal act and the threatening letters harassment because he had not established ownership.   KBWI replied that they would not sign anything without an assurance from the CC that they had the capacity to do so. Things went quiet for a while :-).

Eventually, more than a year after the CC's ruling, CFWI sent us another threatening letter but this time enclosed was a copy of the land registry entry which had been changed in CFWI's  favor. We took this as evidence that they had established legal ownership and we handed over the hall - as we said we would.

On checking we found that the change to the land registry was on the strength of a letter signed by the case worker, a relatively junior member of the Charity Commission staff, who we believed has no legal qualifications.   

One has to ask - if the solicitor felt this was a legitimate means of obtaining title - why did he not obtain that letter more than a year earlier?

It seems that no one had needed to show that in law CFWI owned it. With the help of MP Sheryll Murray we appealed to the Ombudsman. This resulted in the CC doing an internal review [LINK] which was scathing about the way the case had been handled. It established that the letter should not have been written - something reiterated in the apology. The CC approached CFWI to tell them the Hall wasn't a part of their charitable property, that they held it under the 1937 trust. It wasn't theirs to sell but unfortunately the CC found it was already sold. Note this was the first time the CC acknowledged the existence of the 1937 Trust.  Despite having failed to stop the sale the CC did not get back to us or reply to an email which in effect said "What now" so we made a fresh appeal to the Ombudsman and had to wait in the queue for it to be dealt with.

While the CCs review established that they had handled it badly it fell short of saying what the outcome would have been if it had been handled properly. The Ombudsman asked them to establish this. The Apology from the CC acknowledges that the Hall could have been transferred to the Hall Committee and Kelly Bray would now still have a Hall.

Note that when the Hall was handed over to CFWI the harassment by their solicitor did not stop.  He demanded that we sign a document admitting trespass and accepting liability for the cost of removing that trespass. We declined on the grounds that we denied trespass. We did not believe that in English law one is obliged to hand over something to someone who cannot show they own it. 

We came across CFWI's annual report for 2015 this showed that legal fees for 2014 + 2015 totaled £21,681. The treasurers statement said  "..... considerable sums of money have been spent on legal and professional fees. These relate to the ownership of a WI hall which was gifted to the federation when a WI suspended. It has been necessary to take legal action in order to secure possession of the hall and these fees will be recouped when the hall is sold."  It would appear that CFWI were being less than honest with their members. How the solicitors justified such a fee for writing a few letters is a mystery.

It has recently come to light that some local WIs have been given the impression that KBWI gifted the Hall to CFWI and that the Residents Association seized control of it and refused to hand it over!

When CFWI sold the hall they made sure that no one in Kelly Bray could buy it. An estate agent 50 miles away in Truro handled it and sold it for a mere £25,000 to a developer on his email list.  The developer who bought it also bought the strip of land adjacent (the shrubbery) increasing its size by about a third and sold it on with planning permission for 2 dwelling for what we believe to be around £130,000.  How they convinced the CC that they had obtained "best price" - a legal requirement - is a mystery.

It appears therefore that our Hall was sold in order to pay the legal cost of depriving us of our Hall. 

 To buy a piece of land the size the village has lost would cost about  £90,000 and it would cost around £150,000 to build a hall. The people of Kelly Bray have lost an asset which would cost about £240,000 to reinstate - about £500 per household.

CFWI have not expressed regret or apologised for depriving us of our hall or for destroying the legacy of generations of loyal WI ladies in Kelly Bray.

While the Ombudsman has done a good job in establishing the facts, getting the CC to admit their mistakes and provide us with an apology, there are certain aspects of their report [LINK] which make no sense to us. We were quite frankly baffled so lodged an appeal [LINK] but this was rejected without any analysis as to why the points made were incorrect.