11-16 February is National Student Volunteer week, which celebrates the great contribution of volunteer students.  Whilst their efforts are to be applauded, it is important for organisations that use volunteers to be aware of potential risks in relation to doing so and take appropriate actions.

There is currently no legislation that covers volunteer workers or a legal definition of what a volunteer is.  Volunteering England defines volunteering as "an activity that involves spending time, unpaid doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives."

Whilst they provide a flexible motivated resource that can help cash strapped organisations such as charities and voluntary organisations, it is very important to differentiate between employees and volunteers to avoid any future legal problems which may include discrimination and unfair dismissal claims.   Recent case law has shown that volunteers can not claim discrimination as they are not classed as employees.  It is important that the relationship between organisation and volunteer will stand up to scrutiny.

In practice volunteers should not be treated like employees and any written agreements must clearly demonstrate the nature of the working relationship. Tribunals tend to rule on behaviour which can demonstrate a contract even if there is no written document in place. However it is good practice to have  written documents in place.

A volunteer role description (not job description) can clarify the intentions of both parties in terms of the duties or activities required.  

It might be safer to avoid providing a volunteer contract, but instead have an agreement that expresses the intentions of the relationship and reference to appropriate policies that govern the role.  It is best to avoid any connotations that could deem to express a contract such as contract, pay, employee, employer.  Instead use words such as volunteer, intentions and relationship. The agreement could include details regarding the level of supervision and support, training, whether they are covered by insurance and any expenses they will get.  Furthermore it is recommended to develop separate policies for grievance and disciplinary situations possibly referring to problem-solving instead.  

The main legal rights of volunteers are with health and safety, driving and data protection.  Volunteers have the right to a safe workplace, they are covered by special driving at work legislation as outlined by the HSE and they have the right to have their personal information protected in accordance with the Data Protection Act.