Supreme Court rules that volunteers are not protected by discrimination law

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A recent decision from the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that genuine volunteers do not have the same legal rights under discrimination law as employees or other workers.

In this case the claimant volunteered at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) but was forced to stop for health reasons. She claimed that she was asked to stop volunteering for the CAB in circumstances which amounted to discrimination on the grounds of disability. The volunteer initially took her case to an Employment Tribunal, but the Tribunal decided it did not have jurisdiction to hear the claim because she was neither “employed” by the CAB under the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (now the Equality Act 2010) nor working under a work placement scheme.

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court where the judges decided that the volunteer did not have a contract with the CAB and therefore did not have the benefit of the protection offered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The judges also ruled that the EU Directive underpinning the DDA (and now the Equality Act 2010) was clearly not intended to apply to voluntary work. The Court therefore also rejected the claimant’s application to take the case to the European Court of Justice.

This decision will be warmly welcomed by many charities which depend on volunteers as well as those volunteering bodies who do not wish to see the charity-volunteer relationship undermined by over-formalisation.

However, charities should always be careful as any disputes of this nature will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Whether or not a “volunteer” in your organisation is an employee or worker will depend on the relevant facts and any agreements, arrangements and policies which are in place.

In particular, even if there is a written agreement, its terms are not conclusive if it does not reflect the true arrangement or any oral agreement. The fact that the individual is not paid is also not conclusive. Charities must ensure they are aware of the legal status of all people who work for or volunteer with the charity.

If you would like any information on volunteers, please contact Chris Maddock in our Employment Team on 0191 211 7919.