Volunteers are not protected by the Disability Discrimination Act

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has ruled that volunteers are not protected by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), as they are not covered by the specific term ‘occupation’.

Last week, the EAT handed down a ruling in the case of X v Mid Sussex, which had wound a tortuous path through the legal system. X was an HIV-infected volunteer with Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) who brought a claim for discrimination against that branch. She alleged she was discriminated against because of her HIV status.

The claimant was an unpaid specialist adviser for welfare rights and worked under a volunteer agreement.

The case started in 2007 at a pre-hearing Employment Tribunal review, where the judge found X had no contract with the CAB and therefore was unable to bring a claim.

Undeterred, she then went to the EAT, which ruled that her claim was rejected in the first instance because volunteers are not protected by disability discrimination legislation, principally the DDA.

X then appealed to the Court of Appeal (CoA) on the grounds that her work with the CAB came within the definition of ‘occupation’ under European equal treatment legislation. She argued that the DDA should be interpreted to include occupation, and to provide protection for volunteers.

The CoA heard the case earlier this year and referred it to the EAT, whose decision was released last week.

But the EAT found in favour of the CAB, holding that the term ‘occupation’ does not cover volunteers in the European equal treatment legislation.

Victoria Cook, solicitor at Bates Wells Braithwaite, who represented the CAB, said the judgment was in line with previous decisions that maintained that laws designed to protect employees did not apply equally to volunteers. She said the decision recognises “the unique relationship between charities and volunteers whereby volunteers give their often considerable time and effort to charitable organisations for free.”

This and other cases has prompted Volunteering England, the volunteering development agency, to announce it will run an inquiry into volunteers’ rights and responsibilities, which will begin on 18 November. Once the inquiry is over, early next year, the findings will be published and will shed light on the legal rights of volunteers.

[final paragraph edited 9 Nov 2009, 10:32am]

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