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Unpaid volunteer without contract not protected by discrimination legislation

08/01/2013
An unpaid volunteer without a contract is not covered by the protection of European or domestic discrimination legislation, according to a recent Supreme Court decision. X, a volunteer at Mid Sussex An unpaid volunteer without a contract is not covered by the protection of European or domestic discrimination legislation, according to a recent Supreme Court decision. 

X, a volunteer at Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) signed a "volunteer agreement" which stated it was 'binding in honour only and not a contract of employment or legally binding'.  When she was informed by the CAB that she was no longer required to volunteer she brought a claim for disability discrimination, alleging that the decision was related to her HIV status.  The Employment Tribunal determined that it had no jurisdiction to hear her claim as she was a volunteer and therefore outside the scope of the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA).  The Employment Appeal Tribunal and Court of Appeal agreed with this judgment.

The Supreme Court held that as X did not have a contract she was not covered by the protection of the DDA as she was not "in employment".  It also held that the Equal Treatment Framework Directive, which prohibits discrimination in relation to "occupation" did not extend the definition of "occupation" to cover volunteers.  X was not granted leave to appeal to the European Court of Justice.

This judgment has been welcomed by volunteer organisations and charities who rely so heavily on volunteers.  As stated in the judgment these organisations were concerned that a change in the legal status of volunteers could "undermine the nature of volunteering, create practical barriers and additional costs for charities and other organisations in which volunteering occurs, and result in a formalisation unwanted by most volunteers”.

However, the case does raise the possibility that some volunteers may have protection if they can demonstrate that they operate under a contract.  Additionally, the judgment suggests those receiving "vocational training" or "practical work experience", such as unpaid interns, may also benefit from protection.

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