Are Volunteers Covered by Disability Discrimination Laws?

Disability Discrimination Laws

The area of discrimination on the grounds of a disability in England and Wales is covered under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

The main purpose of the Disability Discrimination Act is that it is illegal to treat employees less favourbably than other employees on account of their disability.

Changes to the laws concerning discrimination on the grounds of disability will be made by the Equality Act 2010 which is set to come into force in October 2010.


What is meant by a volunteer?

A volunteer is an individual who undertakes certain tasks on behalf of a specific body without seeking any payment for this task. This is most common in the charitable sector whereby individuals will give up their free time to work for a particular charity not for reasons of payment but for the reason that they fully believe in the cause.

A volunteer should be distinguished from other individuals who undertake certain tasks without the requirement of payment such as young people on internships.

Are volunteers working in the Charity Sector covered by Disability Discrimination legislation?

An Employment Appeal Tribunal has held that volunteers who dedicate their free time to charities are not covered by either United Kingdom or European Union equal treatment legislation which is designed to protect workers and employees.

Is this a desirable position?

Although many organisations rely on the work of volunteers and would not be able to operate without them it may not be a desirable position to enable them to make claims against the organisation. This is due to the vast turnover of volunteers that it may be extremely difficult for an organisation to make concession for certain volunteers.

However, where a volunteer continually works for a charitable organisation the organisation may think that it is a desirable position to put some arrangements in place for that individual.

Why did the decision in this case come about?

In this case a volunteer working at the Citizens Advice Bureau brought a claim alleging discrimination as she stated that she had received less favourable treatment under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

It was ruled by the Tribunal however, that the Disability Discrimination Act only provides protection for workers and employees and not volunteers.

Are there certain circumstances where volunteers will be covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005?

Volunteers will be deemed to be provided with protection under the Disability Discrimination Act in the following scenarios:

  • Where the person has a legal contract – If an individual does have a legal contract then they will fall within the definition of an employee or an individual who contracts personally to do work for the purpose of UK law. This will apply regardless of whether the contract is an employment contract and whether the individual receives any remuneration for the work which they do.

  • Where the person is under a work placement – this will defined as practical work experience undertaken for the purposes of a person’s vocational training – i.e. like an internship stated above

Furthermore under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate in the arrangements which it makes for the purposes of determining which individuals should be offered employment. Therefore if an organisation uses volunteering as a way to assess a particular individual’s suitability to work it that environment the Disability Discrimination Act is likely to apply.