Charities are increasingly being forced to use public donations to defend legal actions brought by former volunteers trying to use employment law to claim unfair dismissal.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), which is facing five possible suits from volunteers with separate claims of unfair or constructive dismissal, has warned that charities delivering vital public services could be damaged if their unpaid workers were given the same legal status as salaried employees.
Andrew Freemantle, the chief executive of the RNLI, said he was alarmed at the prospect that donations clearly intended to help save lives at sea, might have to be spent paying lawyers.
“We cannot allow this blurring of the line between volunteer and employee to go unquestioned,” he said. “If volunteers are considered the same as employees, where does that leave the voluntary ethos?”
Because there is no definition of the word 'volunteer' in law, it was difficult to know how to defend cases, Freemantle added.
Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, said managing volunteers requires a balancing act.
“To get the most out of volunteering, charities must manage their volunteers in an organised, professional way," he told the Times. "Both parties must be clear about their mutual expectations, but not to the point of creating contractual obligations.”