At Issue
9/11/2011 11:50:34 PM EST
Modernising Hong Kong’s charities law
Michelle Ainsworth outlines the proposals made by the sub-committee of the Law Reform Commission to int roduce a modern and comprehensive regulatory regime for charities in Hong Kong.
Posted by LexisNexis

Hong Kong has a vibrant charity sector, with more than 6000 charities now operating in the city. These organisations had raised over HK$8 billion dollars through charitable donations in the fiscal year 2008-09 alone. This was more than double the figure for the year 2000-01.

Faced with a similar rapid growth in charitable-giving in recent years, a number of overseas jurisdictions (such as England, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand) have undertaken major reforms of their laws on charities. These reforms have been aimed not only at protecting the interests of charitable donors, but also at supporting the activities of charities by providing a modern and streamlined charity law framework in which they can operate. In Hong Kong, however, such a comprehensive legal framework for regulating charities does not yet exist. There is limited statutory definition of what constitutes a ‘charity’ or a ‘charitable purpose’, and legislation relating to charities appears in various ad hoc provisions spread across a number of ordinances. There is also a limited system of oversight for charitable fundraising activities.

The question of the need for greater monitoring of charitable organisations has been widely discussed by the community in recent years, and it has become a matter of major public interest that a system should be put in place to both regulate charities and enhance their transparency. In September 2007, a sub-committee of the Law Reform Commission was appointed to review the subject. The sub-committee, chaired by Mr Bernard C Chan, comprises representatives from the social welfare sector, charitable organisations, legal practitioners, the Social Welfare Department and the Inland Revenue Department (IRD). The objectives of the sub-committee’s review are to make recommendations to:

• modernise charity law;
• provide greater clarity in charity law;
• develop greater accountability and transparency to enhance public trust and confidence in charities; and
• ensure effective, fair and proportionate regulation of charities while maintaining the sector’s independence and autonomy.

The sub-committee considered in detail the charities regimes operating in a number of other common law jurisdictions in conducting its review, including Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore and South Africa. The sub-committee released a consultation paper on 16 June 2011 recommending the introduction of a wide-ranging regulatory regime for charities in Hong Kong, and that a charity commission should be set up as a ‘one-stop shop’ regulatory body for charities. This article outlines those proposals.

The current regulatory framework for charities in Hong Kong

Definition of charity
Hong Kong’s charity law has ancient origins. Generally speaking, the meaning of the term ‘charity’ under Hong Kong law follows the common law, and is concerned with whether the particular purposes of the organisation or activity are exclusively ‘charitable’ in the legal sense. The leading common law authority on the definition of charity, which is expressly applied by both the courts in Hong Kong and the IRD, is the decision of Lord Macnaghten in Income Tax Special Purposes Commissioners v Pemsel [1891-4] All ER Rep 28; [1891] AC 531. In that case, Lord Macnaghten listed ‘four principal divisions’ of charitable purposes:

1. trusts for the relief of poverty;
2. trusts for the advancement of education;
3. trusts for the advancement of religion; and
4. trusts for other purposes beneficial to the community not falling under any of the preceding heads.

This list itself was based on English legislation dating back to 1601, namely the preamble to the Charitable Uses Act 1601 in England, also known as the Statute of Charitable Uses or the Statute of Elizabeth I.

Advantages of being a charity
There are important tax advantages associated with being recognised as a charity under Hong Kong law. The profits deriving from a trade or business carried on by an organisation which is recognised by the IRD as a 'charitable institution or trust of a public character’ may be exempt from tax, subject to certain requirements set out in s 88 of the Inland Revenue Ordinance (Cap 112). Also, under s 26C of the Ordinance, a taxpayer may deduct any ‘approved charitable donations’ made by him/her (in the aggregate sum of not less than HK$100) from his/her assessable profits or chargeable income during a year of assessment. Further, the making of a gift to charity, such as a gift of land, would be exempt from stamp duty.

Registration of charities
There is no formal established registration system for charitable organisations in Hong Kong and no government authority has overall responsibility in this area. Separate lists exist for different purposes but these are not formal lists of all charitable organisations. (The IRD maintains the largest available list of charities in Hong Kong, but it only includes those organisations which have successfully been granted tax exemption as charitable institutions or trusts of a public character under s 88 of the Inland Revenue Ordinance.) Some charitable organisations may not appear in any of these lists. This means that, in some cases, members of the public may be unable to find out whether an organisation in Hong Kong representing itself as a charity is, in fact, a charity.

Oversight of fundraising activities
With regard to charity fundraising, the authorities which oversee fundraising activities include the Social Welfare Department, the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA) and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

• If a charity wishes to raise funds through an activity held in a public place, such as a flag day, it must first obtain a public subscription permit from the Social Welfare Department under s 4(17)(i) of the Summary Offences Ordinance (Cap 228).
• If a charity wishes to raise funds through a lottery, a licence is required from TELA under s 22(1)(a)(i) of the Gambling Ordinance (Cap 148). This is aimed at restricting gambling activities.
• Charitable fundraising activities which involve on-street selling may be subject to the Hawker Regulation (Cap 132AI), and would require advance application to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for a temporary hawker licence for on-street selling activities.

The problems with the existing regulatory framework for charities

The sub-committee identified a number of key problems with the existing measures to regulate charities.

1. The definition of ‘charity’ in Hong Kong is not based upon a clear statutory definition, but upon the common law interpretation of English legislation dating back hundreds of years. There are clearly difficulties in attempting to determine the scope of what should constitute a charity in 21st century Hong Kong by reference to a statute from Tudor England and from case law founded in the Victorian era.
2. A coherent system for the registration of charities is lacking. The IRD’s list of organisations that have been granted tax exemption status under s 88 of the Inland Revenue Ordinance does not constitute a formal ‘register’ of charitable organisations as such. There is a need for a proper system of registration in Hong Kong, both to facilitate the monitoring of charities and to ensure that potential donors may be properly informed about the status
of individual charities.
3. There are inconsistent standards and/or requirements on governance, accounting and reporting by charities resulting from the different types of legal structure in which charities may exist, and the differing legislative requirements which apply at the time of the organisation’s formation and throughout the duration of its operations.
4. There is limited control of charitable fundraising activities, with government oversight restricted to those activities requiring the permission of the Social Welfare Department, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department or TELA (such as flag days, on-street selling and lotteries). This means:

(a) from the perspective of the charities themselves, those wishing to conduct certain fundraising activities have to apply to one or more of a range of government departments, each with varying procedures and requirements, in order to be granted approval;
(b) from the public’s point of view, there is a lack of access to information on fundraising activities and there is no centralised information point or hotline where the public can make enquiries about fundraising activities; and
(c) there are no statutory provisions setting out the detailed requirements for fundraising by charitable organisations, covering such issues as internal controls, accountability and transparency.

Recommendations

The sub-committee has made a number of recommendations in its consultation paper to deal with these problems. Its principal recommendations are summarised below. The definition of charity in Recommendation 1, the sub-committee recommends that there should be a clear statutory definition of what constitutes a ‘charitable purpose’. In Recommendation 2, the sub-committee proposes that the statutory definition of what constitutes a charitable purpose that is exclusively charitable should include the following heads:

1. the prevention or relief of poverty;
2. the advancement of education;
3. the advancement of religion;
4. the advancement of health;
5. the saving of lives;
6. the advancement of citizenship or community development;
7. the advancement of arts, culture, heritage or science;
8. the promotion of religious or racial harmony;
9. the promotion of equality and diversity;
10. the advancement of environmental protection or improvement;
11. the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage;
12. the advancement of animal welfare; and
13. any other purpose that is of benefit to the community.

The sub-committee further recommends that, whichever head of charitable purpose the particular purpose falls under, it must be also for the public benefit. This would have the effect of removing the common law presumption that purposes for the relief of poverty, the advancement of education and the advancement of religion are prima facie charitable and for the public benefit.

The sub-committee invites views from the public on whether the head of ‘the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation’, which is included within the legislation applying in England and Wales, and Scotland, should be expressly included in the statutory list of heads of charitable purpose in Hong Kong, and if so, how it should be defined. The sub-committee observes at paragraph 5.112 of the consultation paper that, while it ‘has no difficulty with the proposition that the advancement of human rights could well be charitable’, it notes the view, however, that ‘there is a need to distinguish charitable from political purposes and the difficulty of defining the distinction’.

In drawing up a statutory definition of charitable purposes for Hong Kong, the sub-committee has endeavoured to ensure that the definition does not exclude any purposes which are currently recognised as charitable. At the same time, the sub-committee has proceeded cautiously with regard to any expansion of the definition to include purposes which are not currently charitable. The subcommittee considers that the purposes to be specifically listed in a statutory definition for Hong Kong should reflect major areas of charitable endeavour which have, or should have, strong public recognition.

A proposed charity commission
The sub-committee observes that a number of overseas jurisdictions, such as England, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand have a centralised regulatory body for charities which performs important functions, such as maintaining a register of charities, monitoring charities’ compliance with their legal obligations, instituting inquiries and protecting funds and property of charities in cases of misconduct or mismanagement. The sub-committee considers that there is a need to establish a similar centralised body in Hong Kong which can take over, as far as possible, the functions of the various government authorities responsible for monitoring charitable organisations and their fundraising activities.

Recommendation 18 of the consultation paper states that the objectives of this body would be:

1. to increase public trust and confidence in charities;
2. to enhance transparency and accountability to donors and beneficiaries;
3. to promote good governance and good management practice on matters related to charities; and
4. to promote greater compliance among charities with their legal obligations.

Recommendation 19 states that in order to achieve its objectives, the future charity commission should be equipped with the appropriate functions and powers, including:

1. to determine whether organisations are or are not charities;
2. to maintain and administer the register of charities, including a power to refuse registration in appropriate cases;
3. to monitor compliance by charities with their legal obligations;
4. to vet applications for requisite approval in relation to fundraising activities;
5. to promote good governance and good practice among charities;
6. to investigate, either by itself or by appointed investigators, into misconduct or maladministration by charitable organisations or their officers;
7. to enforce decisions and to grant remedies; and
8. to apply the cy-près doctrine.

The sub-committee also states in its consultation paper that the future charity commission should adopt a light-touch, moderate and sensitive approach in the exercise of its statutory powers, and that these should be exercised in a fair, reasonable and proportionate manner. Further, to balance the vesting of these powers in the charity commission and to ensure fairness, the sub-committee recommends that an appeal mechanism should be in place to enable charitable organisations or aggrieved persons to appeal against certain decisions of the commission: Recommendation 20.

In line with the example in England and Wales, the sub-committee considers that the Secretary for Justice should continue to contribute to the framework of supervision and control over charities which will be implemented by the future charity commission. Furthermore, the Secretary for Justice would continue to be a necessary party to all claims relating to charities in order to represent the beneficial interest or objects of the charity.

Registration of charities
The sub-committee considers that there is a need for a registration system in Hong Kong to enhance accountability and transparency through the disclosure of information and accounts by charitable organisations.  Accordingly, in Recommendation 4, the sub-committee recommends that all charitable organisations which make any charitable appeal to the public and/or seek tax exemption should be subject to the requirement of registration.

The sub-committee has considered in depth the issue of whether exemption from registration should be granted for some charitable institutions, especially small charities. However, the sub-committee has a concern that allowing small charitable organisations which have an annual income below a stipulated threshold to be exempt from registration may lead to abuses due to a lack of monitoring. The subcommittee has concluded that no exemption from registration should be granted to any  type of charitable institutions, except those which do not claim tax exemption and do not make any public charitable appeals. This would ensure that almost all charitable organisations will be subject to the same regulatory and monitoring system and accountability requirements. They will also enjoy the same tax benefits and public recognition of their charitable status.

Governance, accounting and reporting of charities
The sub-committee has examined the systems for regulating and monitoring charities in a number of jurisdictions. Broadly speaking, the approach is for these monitoring authorities to set up a suitable framework for reporting and accounting by charities. The authorities are empowered to conduct inquiries of problematic charities and to act for their protection. The sub-committee felt that Hong Kong’s future charity commission should be responsible for the management and governance of charities by promoting greater compliance with legal obligations by charity trustees or directors in managing their charitable organisations.

Charity trustees or directors are under a fiduciary duty to exercise their powers for the purposes for which they were conferred, and bona fide for the benefit of the charity, and not to put themselves in a position in which their duties to the charity and their personal interests conflict. Under Recommendation 6, the sub-committee proposed that charitable trustees or directors should be subject to a duty to declare any conflicts of interest. They would also be subject to a statutory duty to keep proper accounting records of the charity which are sufficient to show and explain all transactions of the charity, and such records should be retained for at least seven years: Recommendation 8.

In Recommendation 5, the sub-committee recommends that registered charitable organisations should be required to file an annual activity report to the charity commission. This should be provided in a standard form and should cover certain specified matters, such as the main activities carried out by the charity to fulfil its charitable objects, any change in its charitable objects, any change of directors and any change of the registered office address of the charity. Recommendation 7 proposes the filing of annual financial statements with the commission which should be accessible to the public. Larger charities registered with the commission, with an annual income exceeding HK$500,000, should be required to file an auditors’ report and financial statements, while smaller charities below that threshold should file with the commission financial statements certified by the board of the charity.

Under Recommendation 9, the sub-committee proposes that the charity commission should be vested with the power to investigate any alleged mismanagement and misconduct of a charitable organisation in relation to its charitable objects. While there should be appropriate safeguards to ensure confidentiality during an investigation, the commission should be empowered to investigate a charity’s funding, property and activities, and to obtain from the charity relevant information, including documents, records, books and accounts. The sub-committee further proposes that any person who intentionally or recklessly provides false or misleading information to the commission or its appointed investigators, or fails to provide the information required for the purpose of investigation, or alters, conceals or destroys any document required for production for the purpose of an investigation, will be guilty of an offence: Recommendation 10.

The sub-committee recommends that the charity commission should have a range of enforcement powers and remedies available to it to ensure that charities meet their legal obligations and operate in accordance with their proper purposes: Recommendations 11 and 12. Depending on the severity and persistence of a charity’s default in complying with its legal obligations, the charity commission should be empowered to:

1. de-register the charity from the register of charities;
2. refer criminal offences to appropriate law enforcement agencies;
3. refer possible civil actions to the Secretary for Justice; and
4. take action for the purpose of protecting the charity’s property.

This latter power would include the power to:

1. appoint additional trustees or directors of the charity;
2. suspend or remove trustees, directors or officers of the charity;
3. vest property of the charity in an official custodian; and
4. require persons holding property on behalf of the charity not to part with the property without the approval of the charity commission.

Regulation of fundraising activities
In Recommendation 13, the sub-committee recommends that:

1. there should be a sole regulatory body (a ‘one-stop shop’) to process and grant all permits and licences necessary for charitable fundraising, and to monitor the use of funds raised by such activities;
2. this ‘one-stop shop’ service should be provided by the future charity commission which should be vested with the powers and duties currently exercised by the Social Welfare Department, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and TELA in relation to authorising charity fundraising activities in public places and those involving lotteries; and
3. the future charity commission should be responsible for enabling public access to information relating to fundraising activities and for providing an enquiry response service to the public.

In Recommendation 14, the sub-committee proposes that, for all forms of charitable fundraising activities, the registration number of any charitable organisation involved in the activities should be prominently displayed on any related documents, or displayed on any means through which appeals for charitable donations are made (such as solicitation leaflets). This is aimed at promoting transparency and preventing fraud, as members of the public would be able to check the legitimacy of the charity via the future charity commission.

Professional fundraisers are covered by Recommendation 15. The sub-committee recommends, amongst other proposals, that the future charity commission should develop and issue non-statutory codes of good practice to regulate the activities of professional fundraisers and should consider the feasibility of requiring them to register with the commission.

The sub-committee is also aware that solicitation of donations via the internet is an expanding and fast-changing area of charitable giving. The sub-committee would welcome views and suggestions from the public as to how, and to what extent, these activities should be regulated in order to minimise the risk of abuse, while at the same time not unduly inhibiting the work of bona fide charities.

Other recommendations by the sub-committee

Charities may be currently established under a variety of legal forms, including companies incorporated under the Companies Ordinance (Cap 32), trusts, unincorporated associations (which may or may not be registered under the Societies Ordinance (Cap 151)) and statutory bodies which are incorporated under specific ordinances. In Recommendation 3, the sub-committee invites views from the public on whether the current system of allowing a variety of legal forms should continue, or whether a unitary approach, which imposes one uniform model of charitable organisation structure, should be adopted, and if this is the case, what form that model should take.

In relation to charities and tax, one of the issues the sub-committee considered was the extent to which the role of the future charity commission should interface with that of the IRD for the purposes of assessing the tax exemption status of charities. The sub-committee observed that in overseas jurisdictions, there is generally a clear demarcation of roles between these two types of authorities, with the responsibility for assessing a charity’s eligibility for tax exemption resting firmly with the relevant tax authority. The sub-committee therefore proposes in Recommendation 16 that there should be no change to the existing law on the taxation of charities in Hong Kong, except that the IRD would be able to grant tax exemption only to charities which are registered with the future charity commission.

Another important issue considered by the sub-committee was the application of the cy-près doctrine in Hong Kong. Generally, charities are established for the advancement of particular charitable purposes and sometimes a situation arises where that stated purpose becomes 'impossible or impractical to be effectuated’. Without the court’s intervention, a gift to the charity in these circumstances may fail and the property of the charity may have to be returned to the donor or donors, however impracticable that may be to achieve. However, if any ‘general charitable intention’ can be made out under the trust, the doctrine of cy-près will allow the trust property to be used for other purposes which are as near as possible to the original intentions of the donor, so that the trust property can remain dedicated to charity.While the cy-près doctrine as applied in Hong Kong is derived from the common law, a number of overseas jurisdictions have broadened the scope of the doctrine and codified it in legislation. In Recommendation 17, the sub-committee proposes the introduction of legislation to provide a statutory basis for the doctrine in Hong Kong and to broaden the scope of its application, so that it may apply in certain situations even where it is not impossible or impractical to carry out the charitable purpose of the charitable trust. The subcommittee also recommends that the future charity commission
should be empowered by statute to administer the application of the cy-près doctrine in particular cases.

Consultation

The consultation period will last for three months until 16 September 2011 and the sub-committee welcomes views, comments and suggestions on any issues discussed in the consultation paper. An ‘invitation to comment’, listing a number of specific questions on which the sub-committee would appreciate feedback, appears at pages 178 to 185 of the consultation paper and at the end of the paper’s executive summary. We would strongly encourage members of the legal profession to respond on this important subject.  

 

Michelle Ainsworth
Deputy Secretary
Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong

A copy of the consultation paper on charities is available at: www.hkreform.gov.hk/en/publications/charities.htm.

 

香港慈善法:與時並進
顏倩華概述法律改革委員會轄下的慈善組織小組委員會所提出的各項建議,特為香港的慈善組織引入一套與時並進和範圍廣泛的規管機制。

 

香港慈善界活躍蓬勃,現時大約有6000個慈善組織在本地運作。單在2008-09財政年度期間,這些組織透過慈善捐獻籌得的款項約有港幣80億元。這個數額比2000-01年度所籌得的善款高出不止一倍。

不少海外司法管轄區(例如英格蘭、蘇格蘭、愛爾蘭及新西蘭)近年來在慈善捐獻方面亦有類似的快速增長,並對其慈善法律進行重大改革。這方面的改革透過提供一個現代化和精簡的慈善法框架,讓慈善組織在其內運作,以期保障捐贈者的權益和支持慈善組織的活動。然而,香港目前仍未有如此全面的法律框架用以規管慈善組織,只有有限的法例條文界定甚麼構成「慈善組織」或「慈善宗旨」,而關於慈善組織的法例,也只是散見於各項專責條文之中。針對慈善籌款活動,亦只有有限度的監管制度。

近年來,是否需要加強監管慈善組織的問題,已在社會上引起廣泛討論,而設立制度以監管慈善組織及提高其透明度已成為關乎公眾利益的重大議題。在 2007年9月,法律改革委員會轄下的一個小組委員會獲委專責研究有關課題。小組委員會由陳智思先生擔任主席,成員包括社福界、慈善組織、法律界、社會福利署及稅務局的代表。小組委員會的檢討目標是就以下事項提出建議:

• 令慈善法可追上時代;
• 令慈善法更加清晰;
• 提升問責性及透明度,以加強公眾對慈善組織的信任和信心;及
• 於保持慈善界的獨立自主之同時,亦須確保慈善組織受到有效、公平和適度的規管。

小組委員會在進行檢討的過程中,曾詳細研究多個普通法司法管轄區的慈善組織機制,包括加拿大、英格蘭與威爾斯、愛爾蘭、新西蘭、蘇格蘭、新加坡及南非。小組委員會於2011年6月16日發表諮詢文件,建議應在香港為慈善組織引入範圍廣泛的規管機制,並且成立慈善事務委員會,作為「一站式」的慈善組織規管機構。本文將會概述這些建議。

香港現行的慈善組織規管框架

慈善組織的定義
香港的慈善法源遠流長。一般來說, 「慈善組織」一詞在香港法律下的涵義是以普通法為依歸, 重點在於有關組織或活動的特定宗旨在法律意義上是否純屬「慈善」性質。麥納頓勳爵(Lord Macnaghten)在Income Tax Special Purposes Commissioners v Pemsel [1891-4] All ER Rep 28; [1891] AC 531一案中所作出的裁定,是闡述慈善組織定義的最權威普通法案例,香港的法庭須予以明確遵從,而稅務局也明確採納。在該案中,麥納頓勳爵列出慈善宗旨的「四大主要類別」:

1. 旨在濟貧的信託;
2. 旨在促進教育的信託;
3. 旨在推廣宗教的信託;及
4. 旨在令社會得益但非屬以上任何一類的信託。

上述類別的淵源可追溯至1601年的英國法例,那就是英格蘭《1601年慈善用途法令》(CharitableUses Act 1601)的弁言(該法令又名《慈善用途法規》(Statute of Charitable Uses)或《伊利沙伯一世法規》(Statute of Elizabeth I))。

慈善組織可享有的好處
在香港法律下獲認可為慈善組織者,可享有重要的稅務優惠。獲稅務局認可為「屬公共性質的慈善機構或慈善信託」的機構,只要符合《稅務條例》(第112章)第88條的若干規定,其經營行業或業務所得的利潤便可獲豁免繳稅。又根據該條例第26C條,納稅人可從他/她在某個課稅年度的應評稅利潤或應評稅入息中,扣除他/她所作出的「認可慈善捐款」(總額不少於港幣100元)。此外,向慈善組織作出的饋贈,例如饋贈土地,可獲豁免繳付印花稅。

慈善組織的註冊
香港目前既沒有一套正式、既定的慈善組織註冊制度,也沒有一個政府機構在這方面肩負整體責任。現時有個別的慈善組織名單因著不同的目的而存在,但都不是涵蓋所有慈善組織的正式名單。(稅務局備存了香港慈善組織的最大份可查閱名單,但這份名單只包括那些根據《稅務條例》第88條獲認可為屬公共性質的慈善機構或慈善信託的組織。)有些慈善組織可能沒有在任何一份名單中出現。這意味著在某些情況下,公眾人士對於一些在香港自稱為慈善組織的機構,未必能夠確定是否屬真正的慈善組織。

籌款活動的監管
關於慈善籌款,現時負責監管籌款活動的部門包括有社會福利署、影視及娛樂事務管理處(下稱「影視處」),以及食物環境衞生署(下稱「食環署」)。

• 慈善組織如有意透過在公眾地方舉行的活動(例如售旗日)籌款,必須先根據《簡易程序治罪條例》(第228章)第4(17)(i)條,向社會福利署申領公開籌款許可證。
• 慈善組織如有意透過獎券活動籌款,則須根據《賭博條例》(第148章)第22(1)(a)(i)條,向影視處申領牌照。這樣做是旨在限制賭博活動。
• 涉及街頭售賣的慈善籌款活動,可受《小販規例》(第132AI章)規管,並須預先向食環署申領進行街頭售賣活動的臨時小販牌照。

慈善組織現有規管框架存在的問題小組委員會發現慈善組織的現有規管框架存在著多項問題:

1. 「慈善組織」一詞在香港的定義,並非基於明確的法定定義,而是基於可追溯至數百年前的英國法例在普通法上的詮釋。在21世紀的香港,藉參考一項英國都鐸王朝的法規以及維多利亞時代的案例法來決定甚麼可構成慈善組織,顯然會有困難。
2. 現時欠缺一套為慈善組織的註冊而設的統一協調機制。稅務局所編製的一份根據《稅務條例》第88條取得免稅地位的機構名單,並不構成正式的慈善組織「註冊紀錄冊」。因此,有需要為香港的慈善組織訂立妥善的註冊機制,以利便監管慈善組織,並且確保準捐款人可確當知道個別慈善組織所屬地位。
3. 慈善組織的管治、帳目及報告欠缺劃一的標準及/或規定,這是因為慈善組織可採用各種不同的法律架構,而慈善組織在成立之時及運作期間,均可以涉及不同的適用法例規定。
4. 慈善籌款活動只受到有限度的監管,而政府對慈善組織籌款活動的監管,只局限於那些須經社會福利署、食環署或影視處批准的活動,例如售旗日、街頭售賣及獎券活動。這意味著:

(a) 從慈善組織本身的角度來看,有意進行某些籌款活動的慈善組織須向一個或多個政府部門提出申請以取得批准,但每個部門的程序和規定均有所不同;
(b) 從公眾的角度來看,並無渠道可取得籌款活動的資料,亦無中央統籌的資訊站或熱線可就籌款活動作出查詢;及
(c) 並無法定條文列出慈善組織進行籌款時須予遵從的詳細規定,包括關於內部監管、問責及透明度等問題的規定。

建議

小組委員會在諮詢文件中作出了多項建議,以處理上述問題。現將主要的建議簡述於下。

慈善組織的定義
在建議1中,小組委員會建議,應為界定甚麼可構成「慈善宗旨」而訂立明確的法定定義。在建議2中,小組委員會建議,界定甚麼可構成純屬慈善性質的慈善宗旨的法定定義,應包括以下各類宗旨:

1. 防貧或濟貧;
2. 促進教育;
3. 推廣宗教;
4. 促進健康;
5. 拯救生命;
6. 推動公民意識或社區發展;
7. 推展藝術、文化、傳統遺產或科學;
8. 促進宗教和諧或種族和諧;
9. 促進平等及多元化;
10. 推動環境保護或改善;
11. 對因年幼、年老、健康欠佳、殘疾、經濟困難或其他不利條件而有需要者提供濟助;
12. 促進動物福利;及
13. 可令社會得益的任何其他宗旨。

小組委員會又建議,任何一項特定的宗旨,不論屬於哪一類慈善宗旨,也必須是為了公益。這樣做可移除以下的普通法推定:旨在濟貧、促進教育及推廣宗教等宗旨,表面看來即屬慈善性質並且是為了公益。

小組委員會就「促進人權、衝突的解決或和解」的宗旨應否在香港明確納入慈善宗旨的法定定義(英格蘭與威爾斯以及蘇格蘭的適用法例均已納入這項宗旨),徵求公眾意見。假如認為應予納入的話,則應如何界定有關宗旨。小組委員會在諮詢文件第5.112段指出,「對於促進人權也可以屬慈善性質的建議,小組委員會並無異議」,但小組委員會注意到,「有人認為必須區分慈善宗旨與政治目的,不過作此區分並不容易」。

在為香港擬定慈善宗旨的法定定義時,小組委員會已盡力確保法定定義不會排除任何現時已獲認可為屬慈善性質的宗旨。與此同時,小組委員會亦慎重考慮過應否擴闊法定定義以納入一些現時非屬慈善性質的宗旨。小組委員會認為,為香港設的法定定義中所特別列明的宗旨,應反映那些已經或應該得到公眾大力認可的主要慈善工作範疇。

建議成立的慈善事務委員會
小組委員會觀察到,多個海外司法管轄區,例如英格蘭、蘇格蘭、愛爾蘭及新西蘭,均設有統一集中的規管機構,為規管慈善組織而履行重要的職能,例如備存慈善組織註冊紀錄冊、監察慈善組織履行其法律責任、進行研訊,以及在出現行為失當或管理不善的情況下保障有關慈善組織的資金和財產。

小組委員會認為有需要在香港設立一個相類似的統一集中機構,以盡可能接管現時由不同政府部門負責的監管慈善組織及其籌款活動的工作。諮詢文件建議18列明這個機構的目標將會是:

1. 加強公眾對慈善組織的信任和信心;
2. 提高對捐贈者及受益人的透明度與問責性;
3. 在關乎慈善組織的事宜上推廣良好管治及良好管理實務;及
4. 促使慈善組織更切實地履行其法律責任。

建議19述明,為了達致其目標,未來的慈善事務委員會應具有適當的職能和權力,包括:

1. 裁定機構是否屬慈善組織;
2. 備存及管理慈善組織註冊紀錄冊,包括在適當的個案中有權拒絕註冊;
3. 監察慈善組織履行其法律責任;
4. 審批籌款活動所需批准的申請;
5. 推廣慈善組織的良好管治及良好實務;
6. 自行或委任調查員調查慈善組織或其高級人員的失當行為或不善管理;
7. 執行裁定及批給補救;及
8. 應用近似原則。

小組委員會也在其諮詢文件中指出,未來的慈善事務委員會在行使其法定權力時應採取寬鬆、溫和及敏銳的處事方法,並且應以公平、合理和相稱的方式行使其法定權力。再者,為了平衡慈善事務委員會獲賦上述權力以及確保公平,小組委員會認為應設立上訴機制,讓有關慈善組織或感到受屈的人士可以對慈善事務委員會的某些裁定提出上訴:建議20。

參照英格蘭與威爾斯的例子,小組委員會認為律政司司長應繼續參與由未來的慈善事務委員會所推行的慈善組織監管和管控框架。此外,律政司司長應繼續在所有關乎慈善的申索案件中,成為必然的一方,以代表慈善組織的實益權益或宗旨。 

慈善組織的註冊
小組委員會認為香港有需要設立註冊制度,透過慈善組織披露資料及帳目而提高問責性和透明度。因此在建議4中,小組委員會建議所有向公眾進行慈善募捐的及/或尋求豁免繳稅的慈善組織,均必須註冊。

小組委員會深入考慮過某些慈善機構(特別是小型慈善組織)應否獲准豁免註冊的問題。然而,小組委員會所憂慮的是,容許每年入息低於某個訂明門檻的小型慈善組織獲豁免註冊,在缺乏監管的情況下可能會引致舞弊。小組委員會的結論:任何類別的慈善組織都不應獲准豁免註冊,只有那些既不申請豁免繳稅也不進行公開慈善募捐的慈善組織除外。這樣便可確保幾乎所有慈善組織均會受制於
相同的規管及監察機制以及相同的問責規定,同時亦可享有相同的稅務優惠,並獲公眾認可其慈善地位。

慈善組織的管治、帳目及報告
小組委員會研究過多個司法管轄區的慈善組織規管及監管機制。一般來說,所採取的做法是由有關的監管當局就慈善組織的報告及帳目訂立適當的框架。監管當局有權就出現問題的慈善組織進行研訊並為保護它們而行事。小組委員會認為,香港未來的慈善事務委員會應透過推動慈善受託人或董事在管理其慈善組織時更切實履行其法律責任,從而對慈善組織的管理和管治負起監管之責。慈善受託人或董事有受信責任行使其權力,以達到其獲賦權力的原來目的,並且真正令慈善組織得益,而不是令自己對慈善組織的責任與自己的個人利益有所衝突。在建議6中,小組委員會建議,註冊慈善組織的慈善受託人或董事應有責任申報任何利益衝突。此外,他們應有法定責任備存慈善組織的妥善帳目紀錄。這些紀錄應足以顯示和說明慈善組織的所有交易,並應保留最少七年:建議8。

在建議5中,小組委員會建議,應規定註冊慈善組織須向慈善事務委員會提交周年活動報告。該報告應以標準格式提交,並應涵蓋若干指明事項,例如慈善組織為貫徹慈善宗旨而曾進行的主要活動、慈善宗旨的變更、董事的變更、以及註冊辦事處地址的變更。根據建議7,註冊慈善組織須向慈善事務委員會提交周年財務報表,而這些報表應可供公眾查閱。規模較大(每年收入超逾港幣500,000)並已向慈善事務委員會註冊的慈善組織,須提交核數師報告及財務報表;而每年收入在此數額以下的較小型註冊慈善組織,則須向慈善事務委員會提交經其董事局核證的財務報表。

在建議9中,小組委員會建議慈善事務委員會應獲賦權力,就慈善組織在涉及其慈善宗旨的事宜上被指稱管理不善和行為失當的個案進行調查。除應訂有適當的障措施以確保調查保密外,慈善事務委員會亦應有權調查某個慈善組織的資金、財產及活動,並向這個慈善組織索取有關資料,包括文件、紀錄、簿冊及帳目。小組委員會又建議,任何人如故意或罔顧後果地向慈善事務委員會或該委員會所委任的調查員提供虛假或有誤導性的資料,或未有提供調查所需的資料,或更改、隱藏或銷毀為調查而須交出的文件,即屬犯罪:建議10。

小組委員會建議,慈善事務委員會應有一系列可供其使用的執行權力及補救方法,以確保慈善組織履行其法律責任並按照其確當宗旨而運作:建議11及12。視乎慈善組織不履行其法律責任有多嚴重和持續多久,慈善事務委員會應獲賦予以權力:

1. 撤銷慈善組織在慈善組織註冊紀錄冊上的註冊;
2. 將刑事罪行轉交適當的執法機構處理;
3. 將有可能提出的民事訴訟轉交律政司司長處理;及
4. 保護慈善組織財產所需的權力,而以不同程度應用於慈善組織。

上述最後一項權力應包括以下各項權力:

1. 委任額外的慈善組織受託人或董事;
2. 暫停或免除慈善組織受託人、董事或高級人員的職務;
3. 把慈善組織的財產歸屬官方保管人;及
4. 規定代慈善組織持有財產的人不得在未經慈善事務委員會批准的情況下放棄持有該財產。

籌款活動的規管
在建議13中,小組委員會建議:

1. 應設有單一(「一站式」)的規管組織,負責審批進行慈善籌款活動所需的各類許可證和牌照,並且監管此類活動所籌得款項的運用;
2. 此項「一站式」的服務,應由未來的慈善事務委員會提供,而現時社會福利署、食環署以及影視處,就批准在公眾地方進行的慈善籌款活動及涉及獎券的慈善籌款活動而行使的權力和執行的職責,應賦予該委員會;及
3. 未來的慈善事務委員會應負責確保公眾有渠道可取得籌款活動的資料,並應提供公眾查詢服務。

在建議14中,小組委員會建議,就所有形式的慈善籌款活動而言,參與活動的慈善組織的註冊號碼,應以顯眼的方式展示於相關的文件或用以進行慈善募捐的工具(例如募捐單張)之上。這項措施的目的在於提高透明度以及防止欺詐,而公眾人士可透過未來的慈善事務委員會查核有關慈善組織的合法地位。

建議15涉及對職業籌款人的規管。小組委員會其中建議,未來的慈善事務委員會應制訂並發出非屬法定的良好實務守則,以規管職業籌款人的活動,並且應考慮規定職業籌款人須向該委員會註冊的可行性。

小組委員會也注意到,透過互聯網進行募捐是慈善活動中一個不斷發展和變化迅速的模式。小組委員會歡迎公眾就如何規管此類活動以及規管的程度應有多大發表意見,以期減低出現濫用情況的風險,而同時又不會不當地抑制真正的慈善組織進行其工作。

小組委員會的其他建議

現時慈善組織的成立可採用多種法律形式,包括:

根據《公司條例》(第32章)成立為法團的公司、信託、非屬法團的組織(可能須或無須根據《社團條例》(第151章)註冊)、根據特定條例成立為法團的法團體等等。在建議3中,小組委員會邀請公眾就以下問題發表意見:現時容許慈善組織的多種法律形式並存的制度應否保留,又或者應否改為採用單一模式的做法,規定慈善組織在架構上只能屬單一種形式,如果應該的話,又應採用甚麼形式作為單一模式。

關於慈善組織與稅務事項,其中一個經小組委員會考慮過的議題,是在評定慈善組織的免稅地位方面,未來的慈善事務委員會的職責應在多大範圍內與稅務局互相配合。小組委員會注意到在海外司法管轄區內,這兩類機構之間的職責一般都有清楚的劃分,而評定慈善組織是否具有免稅資格一事,均是由有關地方的稅務機構牢牢掌握的。因此在建議16中,小組委員會建議香港現時規管慈善組織稅務的法律應維持不變,但慈善組織必須先向未來的慈善事務委員會註冊,才可獲稅務局批准豁免繳稅。

小組委員會所曾考慮的另一項重要議題,就是「近似原則」在香港的適用。一般而言,慈善組織是為了推動特定的慈善宗旨而成立,但偶爾會出現指定宗旨的落實變得「不可能實現或不切實可行」的情況。不論落實指定宗旨一事是如何不切可行,如果法庭不干預的話,對慈善組織的饋贈在這種情況下便可能會落空,而慈善組織所獲贈的財產可能須退還給捐贈者。然而,如果信託帶有「一般慈善意願」,近似原則即容許信託財產用於與捐贈者的表明意願盡量近似的其他用途,以便信託財產仍可用於慈善工作。香港所適用的近似原則源自於普通法,但有多個海外司法管轄區已擴闊了近似原則的涵蓋範圍,並將之編纂為法例。在建議17中,小組委員會建議在香港引入法例,為在香港適用近似原則提供法定依據,並且擴闊近似原則的適用範圍,當落實慈善信託的慈善宗旨並非不可能或不切實可行時,近似原則仍可適用於某些情況。小組委員會又建議,未來的慈善事務委員會應透過法規獲賦權力,在特定的情況下管理近似原則的應用。

諮詢

諮詢期為三個月,將於2011年9月16日結束。小組委員會歡迎公眾就諮詢文件中所討論的任何議題提出看法、意見及建議。在諮詢文件中文版第175 至181頁,以及諮詢文件摘要的末部,均載有「徵求意見」部分,列出多條具體問題,小組委員會希望公眾能對這些問題作出回應。我們更特別鼓勵法律界人士對這個重要事項發表意見。 

 

顏倩華
香港法律改革委員會副秘書

《慈善組織》諮詢文件可瀏覽法改會以下網頁:
www.hkreform.gov.hk/en/publications/charities.htm


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