The Supreme Court has today handed down the judgment in the much debated case of X v Mid Sussex CAB– its first decision on the legal status of volunteers – ruling that protection from discrimination does not extend to volunteers.
It was argued on behalf of “X”, a former CAB volunteer, that she should be able to bring a claim for disability discrimination in an employment tribunal. X has a chronic health condition and alleged that she was forced out of her volunteering role because of her disability status (an allegation which the CAB denies, and which has never been examined by a tribunal because of the legal issue about the ability of a volunteer to bring such a claim).
The relevant UK law (the Equality Act 2010) does not cover volunteers. X relied on European anti-discrimination legislation which covers people in an “occupation” as well as in employment. She argued that volunteering could amount to an occupation, and that her case should be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union to determine whether protection for volunteers from discrimination was required to be given by the European Union member states.
The Supreme Court rejected this argument and ruled that European Law is clear, that protection from discrimination does not extend to volunteers. They did not accept that volunteering, in itself, amounts to an occupation.
This judgment will be welcomed by many charities and not-for-profit organisations, who were concerned that a different outcome would have led to a fundamental change in the way the voluntary sector operates. The CAB defending this claim was supported by a number of other charities, including Volunteering England and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, who openly expressed their concerns that a change to the legal status of volunteers would undermine the nature of volunteering, create practical barriers to volunteering and additional costs, and result in a formalisation which is not wanted by most volunteers.
Lucy McLynn, Partner at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, who acted for the CAB comments: “The judgment of the Supreme Court reflects the reality of how volunteering works.
Volunteers do not need legal protection. Employees and workers need to be protected against discrimination because they are reliant on earning a wage. But if a volunteer is discriminated against, they can leave and volunteer for another charity. The situation does self-regulate pretty effectively because a charity that is known to discriminate soon won’t have any more volunteers.
This case is not about charities wanting to be allowed to discriminate against volunteers. Citizen Advice Bureaux maintain high standards of best practice in their treatment of volunteers, who are greatly valued within the CAB service. No charity, however, wants to be in the position of being sued by volunteers who think they’ve been discriminated against.”