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Supreme Court rules volunteers have no legal right to challenge discrimination

The Supreme Court yesterday ruled in a landmark case that volunteers do not qualify under the Equality Act and have no legal challenge to acts of discrimination in age, race or sex.

The case was X v Mid Sussex Citizens Bureau. Ms X was an unpaid legal adviser working at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), giving advice on welfare law. She was unpaid and did not have a formal contract with the CAB. Instead, as is common practice with volunteer workers, she was engaged under a Volunteer Agreement.

Ms X was subsequently dismissed from her role at the CAB after being diagnosed with HIV.

If Ms X had been an employee working under a contract of employment with the CAB, she would have been able to bring a claim for compensation on the grounds of disability-related discrimination.

Alan Chalmers, a partner in law firm DLA Piper's Employment, Pensions and Benefits Group commented on yesterday's decision: "Ms X argued that the Disability Discrimination Act's (and the more recent Equality Act's) definition of "employment" should be read consistently with the Framework Directive, which "prohibits discrimination in the field of employment and occupation".

"She felt her voluntary role was an 'occupation' and therefore 'employment' and so she should be protected from discrimination."

Chalmers continued: "The Supreme Court's judgement will be very disappointing for any volunteer hoping for the same protection as might be afforded to any employees who they work alongside."

He added: "Volunteers will essentially only fall within the employment provisions of the Equality Act where they have a legal contract, or are undertaking 'work experience'. If their work is not formally recognised as constituting 'employment' or vocational training under the Equality Act's narrow definitions, a volunteer has no legal right to challenge discrimination."

Chalmers concluded: "Employers will welcome clarity on this issue, even if the decision is one that will have an adverse effect on the rights of volunteers across the UK."