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Charities allowed to discriminate against unpaid volunteers, says Court of Appeal

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The Court of Appeal has held that unpaid volunteers are not protected by anti-discrimination laws, as they are not ‘workers'.

In a judgment handed down this morning (26 January 2011), Lord Justices Elias, Rix and Tomlinson dismissed a claim by Ms ‘X’ against the mid-Sussex Citizens’ Advice Bureau, who she alleged had terminated her status as a CAB volunteer advisor for a reason relating to her disability.

The Court of Appeal held that an unpaid volunteer does not fall within the definition of ‘employee’ or ‘worker’ in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. To qualify as an ‘employee’ or ‘worker’, she would need to be paid a salary. Since she did not, the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 did not apply and Ms ‘X’ could not bring a claim.

Although the case was decided under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, it applies to all strands of discrimination law in the UK. It is also unaffected by the consolidation of the DDA 1995 within the Equality Act 2010.

It reveals a loophole in the law. It shows that a charity, or even a business, can take decisions to hire or fire unpaid volunteers based on pregnancy, race, sexual orientation or other factors which are normally regarded as impermissible.

Charities have campaigned against extending equality law to cover unpaid volunteers because they say it would tie them up in too much red tape. A report in 1999 by the Disability Rights Task Force found it was ‘far from self-evident’ that it was desirable to bring the voluntary sector into the scope of discrimination law, certainly as far as the disabled are concerned. Certainly it has long been thought undesirable and unworkable to give other employment rights, such as the right to the national minimum wage, to volunteers.