Catherine Flexer

As a solicitor within the firm's charities and social business team, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is being able to 'give something back' to the sector through our programme of free legal updates and seminars, and through our partnerships with various third party organisations offering pro bono support to charities.

As a property law specialist, one such partnership which I am proud to be involved in is our continued work with the Ethical Property Foundation (EPF). Former partner James McCallum originally built our relationship with the EPF, and I began working with him on cases referred to us by EPF shortly after joining the firm back in 2016. I have become the main point of contact following James's retirement from the firm, but the fact that he still volunteers with EPF is testament to the worthwhile work which they do.

Essentially our role involves giving some free initial advice, usually by telephone, to charities referred to us by EPF. This has given me and my colleagues some fantastic insight into the challenges that all types of charities are facing. I have been lucky enough to work with some really interesting clients who have come to us this way, from an environmental charity taking an asset transfer of an ecological site from the local council, to a heritage charity taking a lease of an historic fort.

The pandemic has not affected the whole charity sector equally. One of the main areas of change has been in the use of office space. Where clients might have instructed us to oversee their new leases and acquisitions, they are now approaching us to help them dispose of property or escape their leases. Many charities are reconsidering their need for office space altogether.

Of course, not all charities are purely office-based, and for many property remains central to their operations. For example, charities which provide supported housing to vulnerable people do not have the option to downsize or let go of their property, but they must still adapt to operating in a Covid-secure way at a time when finances are likely to be tight.

The media is often quick to demonise landlords, but what of charities or other not-for-profits who rent property out and rely on that income to support their activities? They now find themselves in the precarious position of wanting to help their tenants through concessions and rent-free periods, while balancing their own need for revenue so they can continue to operate their services. On top of that, the current restrictions with regards to what landlords can and cannot do to recover unpaid rent have meant that my colleagues and I have had to keep adapting our advice to fit the latest legislation.

In brief, the voluntary sector looks quite different to what it was in 2019. Flexible and remote working has done wonders for many of my clients, which means that they are likely to rethink their need for property for the future, especially office space.

We have seen a noticeable increase in dispute enquiries, which whilst not unique to the charity sector, is concerning.

A vaccine will not eradicate the pandemic overnight. The charity sector has been working overtime for the past ten months. Even when the world returns to 'normal' and we can all resume our lives as before, it will take time for our charities to recover from the tremendous financial blow they have suffered. That said, with unemployment and inequality sharply increasing as a result of the pandemic, our charity and not-for-profit sector is needed now more than ever. I am proud to say that I will play my part in supporting it back to health.

The Ethical Property Foundation's Charity Property Matters Survey 2020, sponsored by Russell-Cooke, is published today, 26 November.