Many charitable organisations rely on the goodwill of volunteers, and many people enjoy ‘giving something back’ and the social benefits that voluntary work provides.
For the majority of organisations and volunteers the relationship is overwhelmingly beneficial, but things can go wrong and volunteers have been successful in bringing claims against the organisations for whom they have volunteered. Usually this is on the basis they were in fact working for the organisation under a contract of employment or some other worker-type agreement and were therefore entitled to statutory benefits or other employment rights.
In the usual voluntary arrangement no legal contract exists between the organisation and the volunteer because for a contract to exist there must be an obligation upon the worker to perform work, and an obligation on the employer to provide some form of payment or other benefit for that work. In most voluntary arrangements there are neither of these obligations – the volunteer is not obliged to perform the work and no reward is provided. Volunteers are, therefore, neither workers nor employees (in the technical legal sense) and do not have the statutory rights that apply to workers and employees. However, there have been cases where the courts have found that a contract does exist between the ‘volunteer’ and the organisation, usually because the organisation was found to have provided some form of tangible reward to the worker, which then opens the door for the worker to bring other claims.
For example, the payment to a volunteer by a charity of the sum of £40 per week as ‘expenses’ was found by an Employment Tribunal to be, in reality, payment for work because the sum was paid to the worker regardless of whether she actually incurred any expenses. This payment was sufficient to create a contract of employment between the worker and the charity and the worker was found to be entitled to bring a claim for unfair dismissal when she was dismissed. A payment which was undoubtedly intended to offset the expenses of a volunteer inadvertently led to the volunteer being regarded as an employee, and a claim against the charity.
So how can charities avoid these pitfalls?
First, while it is perfectly permissible to reimburse volunteers for out of pocket expenses such as travel or meals, you should ensure that any expenses paid actually relate to expenses genuinely incurred by the volunteer.
Second, be aware that the offer of other benefits, such as the provision of a training course or some other payment in kind, could also be regarded by the courts as consideration for work carried out.
Finally, do not impose a requirement that the volunteer must work a certain number of hours or work at certain times. The courts have found that a ‘volunteering agreement’ which sets out expectations with regard to the hours to be worked will not usually give rise to there being a requirement to work and a legal contract. However, do take care to ensure the language of any agreement reflects the underlying voluntary nature of the arrangement and does not create an impression that there is an obligation on the volunteer to perform work either generally or at particular times.
For further legal advice on this and other employment law issues, please contact David Morgan.