Bates Wells Braithwaite, which acts on behalf of the world renowned Warburg Institute, has welcomed a ruling by the High Court that the Institute’s sole trustee, the University of London, is obliged to house and preserve its library of 350,000 books, provide funding for its running costs, and maintain the Institute as an “independent unit”.

In recent years, the University of London has charged an annual fee to the Warburg Institute to cover a significant share of the University’s own running costs, meaning that the previously solvent Institute has amassed a significant deficit. The Court has made it clear that the University’s conduct is not permissible and that the University is not entitled to restrict scholars’ access to the library.

The Warburg is a teaching and research institute, which boasts the world’s largest collection of books on the Renaissance and the history of the classical tradition. Originally based in Hamburg, the rise of Nazism in Germany forced the Warburg to close, and the entire collection was moved to London in 1933.

In 1944, the University of London became the sole charitable trustee of the Warburg Institute, assuming responsibility for its library, photographs, papers and furniture. In this recent case, the judge, Mrs Justice Proudman, rejected claims from the University of London that all additions to the Warburg since 1944 belong to the University.

BWB senior associate, Leticia Jennings, who acted for the Warburg Institute’s Advisory Council, says the case restates an important principle regarding the obligations of those who hold assets on trust. The case demonstrates that such assets – cultural or otherwise – are held subject to strict fiduciary obligations, and is a reminder to all universities, learning institutes and other third parties who act as trustee.

“This case reminds trustees of their duties,” says Jennings. “If you hold something on trust, you don’t own it, instead you hold the asset for the benefit of the beneficiaries. If the trust is a public or charitable one – as in the case of the Warburg Institute – it means you hold the asset on trust for the public.”

Jennings added “It’s common for people to make gifts to educational institutions, cash, for example, or the first edition of a literary work, and therefore it’s crucial for trustees to remember that these gifts, which aren’t just valuable financially but also academically, have to be held on the terms on which they were given. It’s not for the trustee, in this case the University of London, to assume they can deal with these assets however they choose.”

Bates Wells Braithwaite has been advising the Warburg Institute since 2010, and notified both the Charity Commission and the Attorney General that it believed the University of London was not adhering to its obligations as trustee. After lengthy correspondence between the Attorney General and the University, and much public pressure including from leading academics, the University finally agreed to seek a court ruling.

Following the Court ruling, Jennings commented “I am delighted for all those who care so deeply about the Warburg Institute that the years of hard work have paid off. I hope the University will respect the judgment, and concentrate on adhering to its duties as trustee so that the Warburg Institute thrives.”

Posted on 10/11/2014 in BWB News

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