A court ruling that disabled volunteers are not entitled to protection under discrimination at work laws has sparked serious concerns over their rights.
The Court of Appeal ruled that a disabled volunteer for Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau was not entitled to protection under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
Mrs X – who hopes to appeal to the Supreme Court – claims that when the charity asked her to stop volunteering, it was discriminating against her because she was HIV-positive.
But the court found she was not protected by the DDA because she was unpaid and did not have a contract, even though she had a law degree and a post-graduate qualification and hoped to secure a training contract with Citizens Advice (CA) so she could qualify as a solicitor.
The court also found that volunteers were not protected by the European Union’s equal treatment directive.
Alex Eastwood, a legal caseworker for Disability Law Service, said discrimination against disabled volunteers was “all too common”, so it was “strange” they were not covered by the law.
He said government welfare reforms were likely to lead to disabled people being forced to undertake voluntary work, but without any protection from anti-discrimination laws.
He said: “Employers will therefore have no duty to make adjustments for disabled volunteers or take steps to prevent harassment of volunteers.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which “intervened” in the case, warned that if such laws do not apply to volunteers, organisations will legally be able to discriminate against disabled people and other groups.
An EHRC spokeswoman said: “Given that many employees begin their working life as volunteers, which provides them with valuable experience which they can use as a step up to paid employment, it seems unfair that certain groups of people can legally be denied this experience.”
Andy Williams, from solicitors Charles Russell, who represents Mrs X, said the ruling could stop some people volunteering, harming the government’s “Big Society” programme.
He said: “If the government’s Big Society vision involves an increased requirement for volunteers, as things stand those volunteers currently have no legal rights whatsoever.”
A CA spokeswoman said: “The law is clear that volunteers do not have the same legal rights and responsibilities as paid employees. That is not the same as saying that organisations should be able to treat volunteers unfairly.”
She insisted that CA was “committed to equality, values diversity, and challenges discrimination” and had a “range of policies to support disabled people to volunteer”, with more than 1,500 disabled people volunteering across England and Wales last year.
3 February 2011