Background

The Brisbane Sikh Temple (Gurdwara) Inc (Temple) is an incorporated association under the Associations Incorporation Act 1981 (Qld) (AIA).

Its objects include promoting an understanding of the religious and philosophical traditions of Sikhism, providing a means of communication with other Sikh communities nationally and internationally, promoting and conducting regular meetings of religious and cultural activities, including the holding of prayer meetings, religious lectures and Shabad Kirtan, and inviting scholars, priests and gyanis to lecture and preach on Sikh religious and cultural activities.

Membership of the Temple is renewed annually. There were 235 financial members in March 2021. The constitution expressly provided in a number of places that the number of ordinary members shall be unlimited.

Due to a membership drive in the 2021 year, 3,156 individuals applied to become members. About 671 memberships were paid for by 32 individuals.

The management committee was concerned that their facilities would not cope with the expected increase in attendance. A professional report indicated that 893 persons could occupy one building, which, due to COVID, had to be reduced to a maximum of 269 persons.

The management committee, in considering the membership applications, resolved that due to the occupancy restrictions, membership any person who had not been a member of the Temple in the preceding five years would be rejected.

In July 2021, some of the members sought to inspect the register of members of the Temple, but were only shown the 2020 register and not permitted to take notes or copies without justification.

In an urgent application (Singh & Ors v Brisbane Sikh Temple (Gurdwara) Inc [2021] QSC 290)[1] the Court ordered that the 2021 AGM be postponed until the Court had formally decided the matter. The Temple was further to provide the applicant members with a current register of members.

The applicants sought declaratory relief from the Supreme Court to make directions for the performance and observance of an incorporated association’s rules.

The main issue at trial concerned whether the management committee’s power to reject applications for membership had been exercised in breach of, or without regard to, provisions of the constitution such that any decisions consequent upon the exercise of power were void.

The Court decided that:

The members of the management committee, occupying fiduciary (trusted) positions in relation to the Temple, were obliged to exercise their powers bona fide for a proper purpose.

There was no right to be automatically admitted to membership, but membership should be considered via the process set out in the rules;

The discretionary power of the Management Committee to admit or reject applications for membership fell to be exercised on the basis that there was to be no limit imposed on the number of ordinary members. An exercise of the power so as to exclude from the membership any person who had not been a member of the Temple in the preceding five years and thereby limit membership to persons who had been members in the preceding five years was not consistent with the objects contained in the rules. So, the management committee exercised the power to reject members for an improper purpose, meaning that the exercise of that power was void;”

The concern about the number of occupants that could be safely catered for at the Temple was separate from the administration of membership and an issue of regulating the number of people that could be safely allowed, at any given time, to visit or occupy the Temple’s premises.

The management committee was directed to go back and consider the rejected applications in accordance with the constitution and according to law.

Matters to consider

The Associations Incorporation and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2020, once proclaimed, will prevent a Court application in such a dispute such as this unless the relevant party has made reasonable attempts to resolve the dispute under the grievance procedure in the association’s rules. The proclamation of the Act is at present scheduled for 22 June 2022.

Under the proposed grievance procedure, a member may appoint any person to act on their behalf, and each party involved will be given an opportunity to be heard. The grievance procedure must also provide unbiased mediation if the dispute cannot be initially resolved amongst parties.

A legislatively specified grievance procedure will be implied into all incorporated association’s rules. If an incorporated association wants to use their own customised dispute resolution process, it will need to include it in its rules by passing a special resolution.

At common law, there is no general rule or principle of natural justice that requires reasons to be given for administrative decisions, such as the admission of a person as a member, even decisions that may adversely affect the interests, or defeat the legitimate or reasonable expectations of a person. If the rules of an association do not alter this position, there is no requirement or need for the management to provide a rejected applicant with reasons or an explanation for the rejection.

Usually, rejected applicants under the rules could avail themselves of appealing and presenting their case to a general meeting of the association.

[1] Singh & Ors v Brisbane Sikh Temple (Gurdwara) Inc [2022] QSC 17

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