Houses of Parliament

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will implement the Charities Act 2022.

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The Charities Act 2022, which comes into force in spring 2023 as an amend the Charities Act 2011, will give “greater flexibility” on what museum do with items in permanent collections that had been given as endowments. Previously institutions were obliged to hold on to these forever. In particular some museums may also be able to return looted art and other cultural objects that have repatriation claims. The law has come as a surprise to legal professionals working in the cultural sphere.

Lawyer Gregor Kleinknecht, partner at Keystone Law, said: “This change in the Charities Act appears to have been ‘slipped’ into the legislation without wider consultation with the arts sector and is problematic for that reason alone.  

“It provides an avenue for trustees to restitute colonial era (and other) cultural property where there is already consensus between the claimants and institution that an item should be returned, but the Charity Commission does not necessarily have the expertise to sanction whether this is the right decision to take in the circumstances of each case.”

“Transparent and consistent”

“It is also unclear at the moment what criteria and process are to be applied by the Charity Commission in arriving at these decisions and to ensure that there is transparent and consistent decision making.

Kleinknecht added: “Also, the change in the law does not help in circumstances where there is a dispute between the claimants and museum about whether an item should be returned. More thought needs to be given as to how disputed colonial era restitution claims are resolved; a way forward would be to set up an expert panel akin to the Spoliation Advisory Panel, which follows proper rules and procedures and could make recommendations as to the return or other appropriate resolution of colonial era heritage claims.”