An editor has failed in a bid to persuade the Charity Commission to prevent his former publisher, a charity, from suing him.
Robin Stummer, founder of Cornerstone magazine for members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, has been fighting a legal battle since November 2012 over passing off.
The previous month, the ex-editor had made his own claim against the SPAB for unfair dismissal. But his former employer launched a counterclaim over Stummer’s use of Cornerstone material on his private web page and Facebook.
He is being sued for unlimited damages for passing off, breach of contract and infringement of copyright.
Stummer asked the Charity Commission to intervene, but it refused, despite its guidelines stating that a charity’s money should only be spent on “charitable objectives”.
According to Stummer, Cornerstone regularly had stories followed up by national newspapers and brought in up to £130,000 a year through advertising. Stummer was the only full-time employee working on Cornerstone, which typically ran over more than 100 pages.
The SPAB also asked Stummer, who edited the magazine from when he founded it in 2004 until his dismissal in July 2012, to hand over the photographs taken for Cornerstone. The editor has always maintained that the rights to these pictures belong to the photographers.
At the time, Stummer told Press Gazette that it felt as though this civil claim was being used as a “bargaining chip” to put him off pursuing the charity in an employment tribunal. He vowed not to step down.
In March this year, the SPAB succeeded in having the employment tribunal stayed so that it would be heard alongside its civil claims against Stummer. This hearing is due to be heard in June next year – 23 months after Stummer lost his job.
Employment Judge Prichard expressed sympathy with Stummer, who he said “will be suffering financially with the delay that this stay is bound to cause”. But, owing to the complexity of the case, he said it could “most safely” be decided in the High Court next year.
Stummer alerted the situation to the Charity Commission, claiming that the SPAB should not, under guidelines, be spending the money of its 8,000 members – who include Stummer himself – on a lengthy legal battle. Press Gazette understands SPAB is being represented by City law firm Stephenson Harwood.
But the Charity Commission judged that the SPAB had not breached its rules.
In an email to Stummer, seen by Press Gazette, the commission said: “I acknowledge your point (taken from our guidance) which says that a charity cannot use its funds on anything other than its charitable objectives.
“A charity can, though, in certain circumstances, proceed in a way which may not at first sight appear as directly furthering its objects; for example, charities can take or defend legal proceedings, if the trustees consider that they are acting in the best interests of the charity.”
Throughout his legal battle with the SPAB, Stummer has received support from his local Hackney MP Meg Hillier. Speaking to Press Gazette she admitted it was not an easy case for the Charity Commission to rule on, but expressed sympathy with Stummer fighting in a “David and Goliath case”.
She said: “It just seems that this is like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”
A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “If the trustees of the SPAB have determined that the only way forward in the best interests of the charity is to pursue this action then they can do so and use charity funds without the need for our authority.
“We have written to the charity to make them aware of their responsibilities, but have informed Mr Stummer we will not be taking any further action.”
Stummer said the decision was “nonsense” and described the action as “bizarre” claiming it could only harm the charity.
The SPAB declined to comment.