The NZ Computer Society had its day in court on Monday, appealing the decision of the Charities Commission to remove the society from the register of charitable organisations. If confirmed this decision would put the society in a disadvantageous tax position.
The judge’s decision was reserved so the society will not know the fate of its appeal for “a few weeks” yet, says CEO Paul Matthews. However, the hearing was “definitely good”, he says — its lawyers, from the firm Duncan Cotterill, “got our point across well”.
In its original decision in March the Commission claimed that the society did not have an exclusively charitable purpose, since it provides some benefit to members specifically rather than to the public as a whole. The society maintains its main purpose is educational and other purposes are “ancillary” and therefore do not disqualify it under the Charities Act.
As part of the process leading to the deregistration, the society provided accounts and lists of its educational activities, as well as offering the Commission the chance to talk to several people with first-hand experience of its services. The Commission did not take up the latter opportunity and so gained a less than complete picture of the society’s activities, its lawyers maintain.
A point likely to prove significant to the appeal is whether education in “the discipline” of ICT works to the benefit of people earning their living in the ICT profession, or to that of the population as a whole. The Society points to initiatives such as its KiwiSkills programme, which is aimed at improving the skills of computers users, not solely those working in the profession. It cites media articles suggesting that competence in working with technology nowadays is a general life skill.
Any benefits specifically to members of the profession, such as the ITCP qualification, rebound to the general public benefit by ensuring “professionals practice professionally and ethically, thereby protecting the public”, the society argues.
The society amended its vision and mission statements before the deregistration decision, to emphasise the primacy of its educational purposes. However, the society acknowledges it neglected to update its website to that effect.
A wealth of related material was provided at the hearing on previous decisions regarding professional societies’ charitable status both in New Zealand and in the UK, relevant as the Charities Act derives from British law.
Since the Charities Commission accepted the society for registration in January 2009, and the society’s objectives have not materially changed since that date, the deregistration “does not promote certainty and is contrary to the public interest” the NZCS's lawyers submit.