Home / The Rix & Kay Blog / Volunteer issues and the law
Lynn Marlow

HR Adviser - East Sussex (Uckfield)

22nd June 2016

If you are a business owner, or someone who relies on volunteer support, then an understanding of the differences between employees and volunteers is essential.

Failure to consider how volunteers work within your business could lead to sensitive issues and in some cases, costly disputes that can have a negative impact on your reputation.

Rix & Kay works closely with Active Sussex over a multitude of events.  From providing legal advice and sponsoring roadshows, with key speakers such as Dick Knight, former Chairman and life President of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club and Natasha Hunt, professional England rugby player, Rix & Kay has a wealth of experience on advising charities and sports organisations on their volunteer issues.

Why volunteers?

Volunteers are an incredibly significant part of charities and voluntary organisations, as they frequently provide a flexible, motivated workforce far beyond the financial resources of the organisation.  Statistics from the Institute for Volunteering Research show that in 2014/2015, 42% of adults volunteered at least once a year and 27% of adults volunteered at least once a month, with sport/exercise being the most popular sectors to volunteer in, at 53%.

What is a volunteer?

Currently, there is no legislation that covers this area, however a guideline definition would be that a volunteer is usually considered to be an individual who, of their own free will, gives their time to support an organisation free of charge and with no expectation of remuneration.

The difference between volunteers and employees

There are important distinctions to be made between the volunteers and employees of an organisation. Employees are employed under a contract of employment (which does not have to be a written document) and as such are protected under employment legislation, whereas volunteers are not.

The risks

Organisations need to be pro-active in how they operate with their volunteers, as the line between who is a volunteer and who is an employee can be complex and easily blurred.  In the event that a claim is brought against an organisation by one of its ‘volunteers’ then a tribunal will not give any weight to what the individual was known as, but will look at the whole relationship between the ‘volunteer’ and the organisation.  If, after looking at all the facts, a tribunal decides that there are enough elements to show a position of employment rather than a genuine volunteer, then that individual will be eligible for all the rights and protection that an employee would benefit from.  This could potentially lead to several other ‘volunteers’ also crossing the line into employment status.

What can you do?

Some of the ways to minimise the risk of a tribunal concluding employment status rather than a genuine volunteer would be to review any reimbursements being provided and any perks or training being offered.  Checks should be carried out to ensure that any documentation provided to volunteers adopt a far less formal approach to ones used for an organisation’s employees.

There are also certain steps that an organisation should take if they have any volunteers that drive to carry out their voluntary activities, or are visiting from outside of the European Economic Area. Additionally, if the voluntary activity requires close and unsupervised work with children or vulnerable adults, a Disclosure and Barring Service check will be required.

At Rix & Kay, we specialise in employment law and strive to ensure that clients are given the advice they need.  We also have a dedicated volunteer checklist to be followed by anyone who either currently uses volunteers or is thinking of doing so in the future.

If you or someone that you know needs advice on the issues surrounding volunteers or employment law in general, please contact our Employment team.