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Volunteers aren't protected by discrimination law, Supreme Court rules

Volunteers are not protected by anti-discrimination employment law, according to a landmark ruling recently made by the Supreme Court.

The ruling in the case of X v Mid Sussex Citizens Bureau confirms that to be covered by this anti-discrimination legislation, an individual must have a contract - and that a wage is 'highly relevant' as well. A 'volunteer agreement' does not constitute a contract of employment.

A volunteer may share the same work, hours, duties and responsibilities as their employed colleagues, but without a contract of employment they will not be protected from discrimination as their colleagues are.

Discrimination law does provide for some people working without a wage, for example, those undertaking vocational training or practical work experience. The ruling judge suggested that some interns may also be covered.

Commentators have said that the Supreme Court's ruling will be a disappointment for many volunteers who had assumed they enjoyed discrimination protection. However, many charities and volunteering organisations supported the decision. They reasoned that volunteers do not need discrimination protection because they aren't reliant on earning a wage.

Volunteering England said that having the same protection as employees would 'undermine the nature of volunteering, create practical barriers and additional costs' and create a 'formalisation' that would be 'unwanted by most volunteers'.

Lawyers from Cloisters pointed out that volunteers may still have some discrimination protection in the county courts under the goods and services provisions of the Equality Act 2010. Acas can visit organisations and help them understand what needs to be done to address a range of issues related to Equality and discrimination and diversity. Acas also runs practical training courses on topics connected to Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010, including 'Understanding Discrimination', which provides an overview of discrimination legislation, definitions and management responsibilities for equality and diversity at work.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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