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Proposed legal changes affecting sports clubs and residents’ associations spark public interest

Members can end up being liable for debts incurred by unincorporated associations, warns former chief justice

The deadline for submissions on proposed changes to legislation that would affect organisations such as political parties, religious orders, residents’ associations, NGOs and sport and recreation clubs has been extended because of the level of public interest.

The Law Reform Commission has extended by two months the deadline for submissions on a consultation paper it published in December in relation to unincorporated associations.

An unincorporated association is one set up through an agreement between a group of people who come together for a reason other than to make a profit.

The commission is looking at how the legal status of such groups, which can range from a local gardening club to a national sporting organisation, affects their engagement with civil and criminal law and the interests of their members.


Among the issues being looked at is how the members of an unincorporated association can be vicariously liable for the wrongdoing of other members and jointly and severally liable for any damages awarded by the courts. This means that if some members of an association have no assets and others do, the burden of meeting a claim might end up falling disproportionately on the members who have assets.

“Legally, jointly and severally means that, in theory, every member is liable for the full amount,” said the commission president, former chief justice Frank Clarke.

Another issue being looked at is that, as matters stand, it is not possible to sue an unincorporated association itself because it is not considered by the law to have an independent legal personality. A person wanting to sue an unincorporated association takes the case against all of its members at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, which can create huge difficulties for the claimant.

A further issue is that a member of an unincorporated association cannot take a case against it. As the law stands, “you are suing yourself and you can’t sue yourself,” Mr Justice Clarke said.

“The law doesn’t regard an unincorporated association as being a different thing from just the collection of the members,” he said. For this reason, unincorporated associations cannot enter into contracts or own property.

Some voluntary and non-profit associations set up companies limited by guarantee, which are companies that do not have shares. This limits the exposure of members to potential liabilities. However, many clubs and associations chose not to set up such companies.

Mr Justice Clarke said the commission wants to make recommendations that will bring clarity to the law but is anxious not to recommend unnecessary regulatory burdens for organisations that do so much public good. This makes the consultation process especially important, he said.

“Initially it seemed like a very lawyerly kind of issue, but a large number of organisations seem to be taking the view that this is something they want to have an input into, and that is a good thing. We are very happy with the response.”

The commission has extended the deadline for submissions to May 15th, with the commission anxious that the bodies affected tell the commission what they think of the proposals in its consultation paper.

“I think our biggest concern is to ensure that we don’t do something that has consequences that make things more complicated,” Mr Justice Clarke said. Religious and sporting organisations are among the groups expressing interest in the process.

“We will certainly speak to some of the people who have made submissions directly, with further questions. We may or may not organise a conference depending on whether we feel that will add to it.”

A final report next year will include recommendations for changes to the law for the consideration of the Oireachtas. The consultation paper is available on the commission’s website.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent