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All in a day’s work? The importance of volunteer agreements

Our caselaw update this month is the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision in Groom v Maritime and Coastguard Agency [2024] EAT 71. Here the EAT was asked to consider whether a volunteer in the Coastal Rescue Service could be a ‘worker’ in relation to activities he performed personally.

By way of background, Mr. Groom, a Coastal Rescue Officer, worked under a volunteer agreement. While some activities set out in the volunteer agreement were unpaid, he was entitled to be paid for other activities if he submitted a claim for payment to the organisation.

Mr. Groom was subject to disciplinary proceedings and sought the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary hearing. This is a legal right under the Employment Rights Act 1996 which is granted only to employees and workers.

To be classed as a worker, Mr. Groom needed to demonstrate to an Employment Tribunal that he had a contract or other arrangement to undertake work or services personally. The Employment Tribunal ruled that he was not a worker as their finding was there was no contract between Mr Groom and the Respondent when he attended activities.

Mr Groom appealed the decision, and the case was sent to the EAT. The EAT disagreed with the Employment Tribunal’s decision, stating that Mr. Groom was a worker during the periods where he was undertaking activities with a promised payment. Each such activity triggered a contract coming into effect. It was irrelevant that the payment was not automatic as Mr Groom was required to submit a claim for remuneration.

The EAT held “when a Coastal Rescue Officer attends a relevant activity, they have a right to remuneration. They attend in the context of a Code of Conduct which sets out minimum levels of attendance at training and incidents. …There is no reason why those factors should not give rise to a contract.”

By looking behind the volunteer agreement, the EAT found that Coastal Rescue Officers operated within a Code of Conduct, which outlined minimum attendance levels for training and incidents. This context further supported the existence of a contractual relationship.

Therefore, we can conclude that employment status rests on the actual working relationship between parties, not just the documentation.

While the legal voyage of Mr. Groom has now ended, there are questions left unanswered. The EAT remitted the decision of whether a contract existed when Mr Groom carried-out unpaid activities. Will individuals engaged under these agreements emerge as a worker, a volunteer, or perhaps a legal hybrid? Only time (and more litigation) will reveal the answer.

Following the outcome of Groom, organisations should consider whether their contractual documentation is fit for purpose and if not, whether any action needs to be taken to correct this. Our Employment team can assist you if you encounter any difficulties or need any support. For more information, please get in touch.