Protection for all?

31 Jan 2013

It is commonly said nowadays that, when it comes to discrimination law, everyone has a protected characteristic, and this is true, after all, everyone has a sex, an age, a race and a sexual orientation; however, the question of whether everyone is protected has just got a little bit more interesting.

A volunteer recently tried to bring a claim on the grounds of discrimination arising from a disability.  Volunteers are not specified as a group who benefit from the protection of discrimination legislation, but the individual in the case claimed that voluntary work amounted to an "occupation" and, therefore, volunteers were covered by equality laws.

In the recent case of X v Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau the Supreme Court carried out a thorough assessment of the evolution of discrimination law and determined that:

  • volunteers and workers were not comparable and, therefore, did not need to be treated in a comparable fashion;
  • protection against discrimination only applies in the specific contexts set out by EU Law; and
  • the EU had, in the past, expressly rejected a proposal to include unpaid and voluntary work within the remit of equality law.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court has found that it was never intended, under UK law or European Law, that volunteers would benefit from the laws providing protection against discrimination.  The Court also refused leave for a further appeal to the European Court of Justice.  So, for the time being at least, the law is fixed: volunteers are not protected against discrimination.