Volunteers have no legal right to challenge “employment” discrimination

In a recent decision the Supreme Court ruled that volunteers within organisations do not qualify for the protections afforded under the Equality Act, namely employment discrimination on the grounds of age, race or sex.

This landmark case was X v Mid Sussex Citizens Bureau. The facts of the case are that Mrs X was a part-time voluntary legal adviser working for the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), advising the public on areas of welfare law. Mrs X was not paid for her services and did not have a formal contract with the CAB, but was engaged under a Volunteer Agreement.

Mrs X was subsequently dismissed from her role with the CAB after being diagnosed with HIV.

Had Mrs X been a paid employee, with a contract of employment, she would undoubtedly have been able to bring a claim against her employer for discrimination on the grounds of disability.

Mrs X presented the argument that “employment” needs to be read consistently with the Framework Directive of the Disability Discrimination Act and Equality Act, which “prohibits discrimination in the field of employment and occupation.” In “working” as a volunteer legal adviser for the CAB, this constituted an occupation and therefore could be considered “unpaid employment”.

Whilst employers will welcome the Supreme Court’s decision, it is possible that the decision will have an adverse effect on rights of those who give of themselves and volunteer for charities and organisations. It is likely that the only “volunteers” who might be considered as being in “employment” would be those where a legal contract exists, or are undertaking formal work experience.

It is important to have clarification on this employment law issue, for both sides, but we hope that this does not have a negative effect and serve to put individuals off the idea of long-term volunteering.