Coastguard Volunteer a 'Worker' When Performing Paid Activities

A person who performs a voluntary role may nonetheless meet the definition of a 'worker' under Section 230(3) of the Employment Rights Act 1996, depending on the individual circumstances. Recently, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that a man who volunteered for the Coastguard Rescue Service (CRS) was a worker when performing activities for which he was entitled to claim payment (Groom v Maritime and Coastguard Agency).

The man had held voluntary roles within the CRS since 1985. After he was invited to a disciplinary hearing, his membership of the CRS was terminated. He brought an Employment Tribunal (ET) claim on the grounds that he had been refused permission to be accompanied by a trade union representative at the hearing, a right that would only apply if he were a worker.

The ET found that, on a proper reading of the documents governing their relationship, no contract existed between the man and the CRS. The agreement was described as a voluntary one, and although volunteers were entitled to claim payment for certain activities, there was no automatic remuneration for any activity and many volunteers never made such claims. He was therefore not a worker. The man appealed this decision to the EAT.

The EAT noted that the ET had clearly not believed the man to be arguing that there was an overarching contract, and the Notice of Appeal had not suggested that the ET had erred in its understanding of his case. The EAT therefore confined itself to considering whether the ET had been correct to decide that he was not a worker when he undertook an individual activity for which he could claim payment.

Upholding the man's appeal, the EAT considered that, in focusing on the lack of automatic remuneration and the fact that many volunteers did not claim, the ET had lost sight of the fact that volunteers had the right to be remunerated for many activities. When the man attended such an activity, a contract arose under which he provided services to the CRS. The EAT substituted a finding that he was a worker.