A Supreme Court hearing this week could lead to important new protection from discrimination for thousands of disabled volunteers, and benefit claimants forced into government work experience programmes.
A disabled woman – referred to as X – is asking the court to provide legal protection for volunteers who face discrimination.
But her lawyers have made it clear that, if she is successful, her victory will also provide new rights for disabled and non-disabled people carrying out work experience or working as unpaid interns.
Andy Williams, X’s solicitor, from the legal firm Charles Russell, said such legal protection could, for example, help disabled people facing the withdrawal of benefits for failing to co-operate – for impairment-related reasons – with a government work experience placement.
He said: “If you have anyone in your operation carrying out duties without being paid – including work placements and returning unemployed people to work – it would be giving those people rights as well.”
X, who volunteered part-time for Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau, gave advice on welfare law but claims she was told to leave her role when she made the organisation aware of her HIV status.
Although X was unpaid and did not have a contract, she had a law degree and a post-graduate qualification and hoped to secure a training contract with Citizens Advice (CA) so she could qualify as a solicitor.
But the Court of Appeal ruled last year that she and other volunteers were not entitled to protection from discrimination under equality laws.
X’s lawyers argued in the two-day Supreme Court hearing this week that she and many other volunteers should be protected by equality laws because of rights provided by the European Union’s directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation.
Williams said that if – as is possible – the Supreme Court sends the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), any resulting ruling would affect several million volunteers in the UK and another 100 million across the European Union.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which “intervened” in the case as an independent third party expert, said it was only right that the government’s “Big Society” vision should offer protection for volunteers.
John Wadham, EHRC’s general counsel, said: “This is especially important for many disabled or older people for whom volunteering may play an essential part in helping them live independently and be included in their local community.”
A CA spokeswoman said the case had “potentially profound implications for the entire voluntary sector”.
She said CA was “strongly committed to promoting an environment in which everyone is treated fairly and with respect, regardless of whether they are a paid worker or volunteer”, while there were “specific equality and dignity policies for volunteers with which all bureaux are expected to comply”.
She added: “Any complaint or breach of these policies is taken very seriously, thoroughly investigated and acted upon.”
A ruling is expected later this year.