What’s Charity Law?

Benjamin Miller (1L)

So charity law is, like, where you do legal work for free, right? Not quite.

According to Linda Godel, partner at Torkin Manes LLP, charity law is the law that applies to the charitable sector. As a result, it includes areas of law that apply as much to other entities as they do to charities. For example, the charitable sector employs about 1.4 million full time employees and 1.2 million part-time employees, so employment law is pretty important. But it also includes laws that are specific to charities, like charitable trusts or the Canada Revenue Agency’s “10% limit” on political activities.

Okay, so what? You probably already see yourself volunteering in your community, but is it really something that will affect your career? The charitable sector is so much more than what volunteers on evenings and weekends can handle. There are about eighty-six thousand charities in Canada, and about a hundred thousand more non-charity not-for-profit organizations that are part of the larger voluntary sector. The charities alone had revenues of $246 billion last year. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of this money does not come from donations: $165.9 billion comes from government, $66.8 billion “earned” or business revenue (that’s right, charities can run businesses!), and only $13.3 billion from donations.

As a result, there are a huge range of legal careers that involve charity law. Universities, hospitals, foundations, wills & estates, and social enterprises are just some examples of areas that need lawyers familiar with charity law. Law firms have taken note: some larger ones like BLG and Miller Thomson have developed considerable “social impact” practice groups, while a few smaller firms practice primarily in this area (such as Blumberg Segal, Drache Aptowitzer, and Carters). This is without even mentioning the countless generalist lawyers who might have charities or non-profits walk into their offices much like any other client. And of course there is also the Canada Revenue Agency, and Ontario’s Public Guardian and Trustee.

Lawyers who practice charity law often do so after practicing in corporate or tax law. Indeed, a lot of the knowledge and skills are transferable. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know you want to start in this area from law school, because the charity law curriculum is so limited. While most law schools have trusts courses that take time to deal with charitable trusts, most charities are corporations and few corporate law courses delve into non-profit forms (Osgoode being a notable exception). Despite the importance of tax law for this area, scant attention, if any, is paid to it in most classes. You might think that makes sense because this is a complex area and a large sector deserving of its own course. Fair enough. Yet there are only three law schools (Ottawa, Manitoba, and Victoria) that have a course dedicated exclusively to the charitable/voluntary sector.

In short, the sector is a lot more than your grandma’s bake sale! Whether it’s universities registering patents, churches navigating human rights, or environmental charities engaging in advocacy, the day-to-day problems that face charities are fascinating and complex no matter what your interests are. Any of these complex legal entities may one day call on your services. Will you be ready?

Source of statistics: Blumbergs’ Snapshot of the Canadian Charity Sector 2014

Source of curriculum information: Private research