A recent ruling by the Supreme Court has confirmed that disabled volunteers are not entitled to the same protection against discrimination as employees. The decision has been welcomed by charities, but keeps in place one of the barriers faced by disabled people trying to get into paid employment.
The case concerned a woman known only as X, who became a volunteer adviser for the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in May 2006.
The position was unpaid and there was no contract, although a volunteer agreement (which was not legally binding) was signed. After about a year X was asked to stop working in circumstances that she claims amount to discrimination on grounds of disability. She then sued the CAB.
The case has worked its way up through the Employment Tribunal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and finally the Supreme Court, without considering whether discrimination actually took place. There was another question to answer first – whether the case could actually be heard at all.
In the UK the law against disability discrimination is governed largely by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and a European Directive. If these laws don’t apply to your particular claim, then generally it cannot go ahead – and that is exactly what the CAB argued in this case.
The Employment Tribunal, Employment Appeal Tribunal and the Court of Appeal all agreed, but X appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that her voluntary activities amounted to an “occupation”, and were therefore covered by the Directive. The protection against discrimination on the grounds of disability should therefore extend to her, she said.
The Supreme Court disagreed.
Since the appellant had no contract, she did not on the face of it benefit from the domestic protection afforded by the 1995 Act, it said. Whether she could have any claim therefore depended upon whether the Directive should be given a wide interpretation, covering volunteers in her position.
Again, the Court said no, confirming that the Directive is not unlimited in scope or extent, but that it instead provides carefully defined protections against discrimination on grounds of disability in specified circumstances. Her situation did not fall into these circumstances.
In effect nothing will change. The ruling simply confirms the existing position, and gives a bit of certainty to charities, many of which are struggling to survive in the current climate.
However, with many disabled people relying on volunteer work to help them get into paid employment, the ruling will not make things any easier for them.
Author by-line: This is a guest post from Thompsons Solicitors Scotland.