What is the Charity Commission and what are its functions?

The Charity Commission

The Charity Commission regulates and registers charities in England and Wales under the provisions laid out in the Charities Act 2011 (as amended by the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016).

The Charity Commission offers advice and provides a range of services and guidance to all charities in England and Wales to help them run as effectively as possible and to ensure the public can support charities with confidence.

It is responsible for maintaining an accurate and up-to-date register of charities. This includes deciding whether organisations are charitable and should be registered and removing charities that are not considered to be charitable, no longer exist or do not operate.

It is a non-ministerial government department meaning it is independent of ministerial influence and of the sector it regulates.

The Charity Commission undertakes a number of quasi-judicial functions where it uses powers similar to those of the High Court. This includes:

  • establishing a scheme for the administration of a charity;
  • appointing, discharging or removing a charity trustee or trustee for a charity, or removing an officer or employee;
  • vesting or transferring property, or requiring or entitling any person to call for or make any transfer of property or any payment.

Structure of the Charity Commission

The day-to-day and operational management of the Charity Commission is delegated to its chief executive, but the board is ultimately responsible for all it does do. This includes how it meets its statutory objectives and uses its legal powers and its:

  • overall performance;
  • values, integrity and reputation;
  • business direction and strategy;
  • management team’s performance, governance standards and delivery against plans.

Register of charities

  • The Charity Commission’s role is to make sure each organisation it registers:
  • satisfies the legal definition of a charity in the Charities Act;

  • is required to register;
  • will operate as a charity once registered.


Charities are defined by the Charities Act as: an institution which is established for charitable purposes only, and is subject to the control of the High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction with respect to charities.

Section 3(1) of the Act lists a number of descriptions of charitable purposes, including the prevention or relief of poverty; the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces, police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services; and the relief of those in need because of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage.

Other purposes include: the advancement of: education; religion; health or the saving of lives; citizenship or community development; arts, culture, heritage or science; amateur sport; human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity; environmental protection or improvement; and animal welfare.

A purpose falling within s 3(1) must be for the public benefit if it is to be a charitable purpose.

Who runs charities?

Charities are run by trustees who form the governing body or the board of the charity and are responsible for directing its business.
Most trustees of charities take their position on a voluntary basis and do not receive any remuneration other than general expenses. They can only get paid if it’s allowed by their governing document, by the Charity Commission or by the courts.

Registration of charities

All charitable organisations based in England and Wales have to register with the Charities Commission if their income is over £5,000 a year, unless they are one of the exemptions listed in Sch 3 of the Charities Act.

Accountable to the public

All charities in England and Wales are accountable to the public meaning all charities which are registered with the Charity Commission must provide certain information about the way in which they operate and how their resources are used. This information is available to the public through the Charity Commission.

Enforcement action

  • Where there has been abuse or non-compliance in charities, the commission may require corrective action to be taken by the trustees.
  • The commission will check the requested actions have been taken. In some cases it may agree an action plan for a charity and follow this up to ensure it has been implemented.
  • Charities that fail to provide evidence of their activity and existence by submitting accounts, annual returns or annual updates may be referred for enforcement action or removed from the register of charities.

Complaints about a charity

Complaints should be made to a charity directly unless illegal activity, like terrorism or abuse, is suspected, in which case you should contact the police.

If you’re unhappy about how the charity deals with your complaint, you can contact the Fundraising Regulator to complain about the way you’ve been asked for donations or how fundraisers have behaved.

If you want to complain about the amount of emails or mail you get from a charity or find a charity’s advertising campaign offensive, deceptive or inaccurate you should contact the Advertising Standards Authority.

You can report serious concerns about a charity directly to the Charity Commission, if, for example, it is:

  • not doing what it claims to do;
  • losing lots of money;
  • harming people;
  • being used for personal profit or gain;
  • involved in illegal activity.

Appealing a Charity Commission decision

If you are unhappy with a Charity Commission decision, such as if it refuses to register your charity, removes it from the register, refuses to let you change the charity’s governing document, or disqualifies/ suspends you from being a trustee, you can appeal to a tribunal in the General Regulatory Chamber. You have 42 days to appeal after the Charity Commission sends you its decision.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.