Ultra Vires


The Quirkiest Cases in Charity Law

From internet access to eagle carcasses, what qualifies as charitable under the law?

If you thought charity law was all about bake sales and clothing drives, think again. Modern charity law dates back to the 1601 Statute of Uses and in its 400+ year tenure it has seen some downright bizarre cases. We asked a number of charity lawyers to provide some insight on what they consider to be the strangest cases in the field.

Mark Blumberg of Blumberg Segal LLP shared The House of Holy God. In this case, the courts had to “work really hard to decide whether a charity registered for advancement of religion could be solely engaged in the business of producing and selling maple syrup and maple syrup products” said Mark. After much deliberation, the court concluded that there was indeed no evidence “that the carrying on of a maple syrup business is an element of religious doctrine.” It seems the divine taste of french toast with maple syrup was not a charitable enough purpose.

Charities receive all kinds of donations, from straight-forward cash to items such as unwanted handmade Christmas sweaters. If the charity issues a tax receipt, they need to determine the value of what they’ve received. Tax authorities ask a similar question when items are inherited. This question can get complicated when it comes to art. Adam Aptowitzer of Drache Aptowitzer LLP invited us to consider how to value items that can’t be sold. Let’s say there’s a masterpiece called “Canyon” by an artist so famous that the work is valued at $30-60 million. The only catch is the artist found a bald eagle carcass in the trash one day and thought it would look great in the piece. However, environmental law prohibits selling such carcasses. What kind of tax receipt can be issued? The IRS thought $29 million in taxes would be fair, but ultimately, an arrangement with a museum allowed the artist to avoid the question. Think about that next time you go fishing animal carcasses out of the trash.

Apparently, people get more creative in their gift-giving as the end draws near. Cynthia Spencer of the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee pointed us to the most famous of all Canadian wills: Charles Vance Millar’s “Stork Derby.” Millar, an eccentric lawyer, promised a fortune to the woman or women who birthed the most children in the decade following his death. This set off an intense race that caught international attention, and led to a book and movie being written. Four families collected, but the litigation that followed—over whether there was a public policy reason to invalidate such a will—was so intense and long-lasting that really only the lawyers won. You know what they say: where there’s a will there’s a way… a way too long court case!

Cliff Goldfarb of Gardiner Roberts LLP led us to the more modern issue of whether connecting people to the internet can be considered charitable. In the beginning, charity law was focused on basic public goods that many now take for granted as government responsibility such as “the repair of bridges, ports, causeways and highways.” Nevertheless, this conception of what qualifies as charitable work has continued to present-day. In the 1996 case of Vancouver Regional FreeNet Assn. v. M.N.R., the Federal Court of Appeal found that providing free access to the internet was charitable on the grounds that the association was providing access to the “information highway.”

These cases are all pretty strange, right? But, which is the weirdest? Exercise your legal acumen to decide for yourself by going to our Facebook page and voting!

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