Thursday, 19 August 2010

Is a mosque a corporation? £90k legal battle to find out

A High Court hearing on Tuesday will decide whether the management committee of an East London mosque can exclude worshippers they don't like. This appears to be uncharted legal territory.

If the Shah Jalal mosque's management committee are allowed to exclude worshippers, the power will be based on UK corporate law rather than Sharia law.

This is the latest escalation in a bitter dispute over a cluster of prefabricated cabins on the Ocean Estate in Stepney, one of the UK's most impoverished communities. These cabins serve as the Shah Jalal Mosque.

Despite the poverty, worshippers managed to raise £900k in order to build a new mosque. But concern over the management of these funds flared into allegations of corruption and confrontation (East London Advertiser story from 2008).

In response the mosque management committee has hired lawyers to exclude its opponents. These lawyers have been paid with money that was collected to build the mosque - with £90,000 already spent on legal fees in less than a month.

The mosque's management committee claims that the Charity Commission is aware of its action. The Charity Commission would not comment on the case until it received a letter from a defendant yesterday. A spokesperson for the Charity Commission told Blood and Property: "The Charity Commission is aware of concerns about Stepney ShahJalal Mosque (charity number 1079423). We will now assess the concerns to establish what, if any, regulatory role there may be for the Commission."

In the most recent High Court hearing - Friday 6 August - Mrs Justice Nicola Davies refused to grant an order to exclude worshippers. She said she found a number of issues "unsatisfactory". These included the lack of legal representation for 8 of the 11 defendants and a lack of primary documentation. She was also not convinced that the split between the mosque's trustees over the expulsions was irrelevant, as had been claimed by the mosque's barrister, Mr Cakebread.

Judge Davies also expressed concern at charity money being spent and acknowledged the level of support for the defendants (the 11 who face expulsion from the mosque) - the court heard that the 20 to 30 mosque users present were there to support the defendants.

She was not swayed by the claimants argument that their decision to exclude worshippers was backed by law:

Cakebread: If argument has been put to court that there is a legal entitlement for people to (attend) then I’m not aware of it. It’s like barring someone from my house. It is the same, there’s nothing different about it.

The Judge pointed out that some of the mosques trustees supported the defendants.

Cakebread: It is irrelevant because it is a majority in company law, the majority of the company can make the decision.

Later in the hearing the Judge said: "A history where you clearly have dissenting trustees, I don’t just dismiss, as you have, as irrelevant…I can tell you I am not making the order you seek this afernoon."

A date of August 24 was set for the next hearing.

Here's a report of a court hearing on July 29th which covers some of the other issues being discussed: Mosque worshippers face £45,000 legal fee over management dispute.

A court has been told that £300,000 of the Shah Jalal Mosque’s cash had inexplicably disappeared, that official documents had been falsified, and that the Mosque’s treasurer was illegally removed from his post.

The presiding judge, Mr Justice Griffith Williams, commented on the seriousness of the allegations but said that he was not in a position to say whether or not they were true. However the allegations allowed him to revisit an earlier court order in which he had ordered the treasurer to unfreeze the Mosque’s bank accounts.

The judge said: “I can understand your claim. These are serious allegations and it seems to me that there are matters that should be litigated at the earliest possible opportunity. I’m not in any position to direct whether there’s any truth or otherwise in any of the allegations but if there is then clearly the defendant’s decision is understandable vis-à-vis the bank.”

After hearing the allegations he issued a new order giving instructions on how the mosque’s accounts should be handled during the management dispute. But this still included payment of a £35,000 legal bill of one side in the dispute.

Whether or not these legal fees should be paid by the mosque dominated the end of the hearing. Stratford-based Bowlings solicitors faced the prospect of not being paid after taking instructions from the allegedly corrupt Mosque management.

During the hearing Justice Griffiths Williams said that the £45,000 bill “does seem rather a lot of money” and pointed out that the claimant’s barrister had, at one stage in the hearing, said the bill was between £40-£45,000 and that Bowlings had then fixed it at £45,000.

The judge said: “It’s unseemly for lawyers to be arguing about fees and it is certainly not something with which a judge should be involved.”

At first the Judge was minded to unfreeze the mosque’s bank accounts and to exclude legal expenses from any future payments. Then, after arguments were made, a compromise was reached which saw £35,000 of the bill being paid from the mosque’s funds,

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.