Duty of Care for Volunteering

300 124
Tony Boobier
by Tony Boobier

Over the course of the Winter I was asked to help in the building of a new website for a charitable organisation. By ‘asked’, I suppose I mean that I was ‘volunteered’ by others on the basis that I know one or two things about computers, whatever that is meant to mean.

I wondered about the matter of volunteering generally, that is, when you apply your expert or perhaps not-so-expert knowledge to a problem. If it goes wrong then what is your liability?

Volunteers usually work for an organisation on the basis of a written, or more likely, a verbal agreement. A written agreement sets out the duties and responsibilities in writing, and therefore brings clarity to the situation. A verbal agreement is often subject to different interpretations and, ultimately, can potentially lead to disagreements.

It is a general principle in law that we owe a duty of care to each other. That duty of care extends from the host organisation to the volunteer, and from the volunteer to anyone who might be adversely and negligently affected by their actions, especially where damage or injury has been caused. This isn’t simply a duty by doing something, it can also extend to ‘not’ doing something such as in the case of a rescue – although consideration will be given to the particular circumstances of the situation such as the volunteer placing themselves in danger, for example.

The three tests of negligence are that

  • Someone or their property was harmed by something which was done, or not done
  • The harm was caused by a person who did or did not do something
  • The harm could have been reasonably foreseen

It is often a matter of authorisation. A volunteer does not act within the scope of their authority if they take action which the organisation did not agree to, in other words, that the volunteer was not authorised to do. The risk is higher where the injured person is more vulnerable, typically in the case of a child or disabled person. Additionally, there can also be risks where money is involved, such as in the case of fraud.

Volunteers give their time generously to help many types of organisations, and no-one wants to cause harm or be harmed. At the same time, it is important that they are aware of the risks. Some of these risks are covered by the organisations own insurance cover, but there are few, if any, specific policies which cover volunteering on an individual basis.

What this means is that volunteers should be clear as to their roles and duties, and not step outside them. Where agreement is verbal, it is as well to get some clear written statement, even if this is only in the form of an email from one party to another.

Tony Boobier