Eventually, the board split into two factions on a broadly generational basis.  The older trustees felt the expanded hall should be treated as part of the gurdwara and should not be used for activities involving dancing or the consumption of meat.  The younger trustees believed the premises should be treated as a new community building and should welcome community events even where they involved activities – such as dancing or eating meat - which were not permitted in the gurdwara itself.

Jamie tried to maintain an impartial role, working to bring the two groups together.  He drew their attention to a dispute resolution procedure in the deed of trust under which the gurdwara was established which provided for internal disputes to be resolved by a ‘Holy Saint’ recognised under the particular variant of Sikh faith followed by the Totnes gurdwara as a spiritual leader of the charity.  The Holy Saint was able to appoint or remove trustees and was therefore, well placed to make and enforce a binding decision.

Unfortunately, the trustees could not agree on the identity of the Holy Saint.  The original Holy Saint had died years earlier and the identity of his successor was the subject of a longstanding doctrinal dispute between adherents of the Indian group from which the charity had emerged.  Matters deteriorated and Jamie was shocked to receive a letter from a firm of solicitors instructed by four of his fellow trustees suggesting that the matter would have to be settled in court.

At this stage, Jamie sought legal advice.  He was advised that the threatened legal action amounted to ‘charity proceedings’ and could not be pursued without permission from the Charity Commission or the Court – which had not been obtained.  Both the Charity Commission and the Court would be reluctant to see the charity’s funds dissipated in the costs of litigation unless satisfied that the matter could not be settled by internal dialogue or mediation.  Moreover, the Court was unlikely to be willing to intervene in a dispute which was so dependent on the particular religious beliefs and practices of the Totnes Gurdwara.  A similar situation had been considered in the case of Khaira and others v Shergill and others[1] in which the Court of Appeal held that a dispute of this sort was not one that English courts could adjudicate on.

Armed with this advice Jamie persuaded the trustees to agree to mediation facilitated by a respected senior member of the local Sikh community - and he hopes it will be successful.

This article was originally written for Civil Society Governance magazine, January 2013.

For more information

Please contact Shivaji Shiva on 0121 212 3681 or shivaji.shiva@anthonycollins.com.

[1] Kharia and others v Shergill and others [2012] EWCA Civ 983. At the time of writing, the Supreme Court had been approached for permission to appeal this decision.