Focus: Policy and Politics - Volunteers reassured over litigation

Nathalie Thomas

Legislation could offer voluntary organisations greater protection.

Voluntary bodies fearful of compensation claims could soon come under the protection of the Compensation Bill, which was introduced to Parliament late last year.

The legislation will require courts, when determining if organisations or individuals should have done more to ensure a high standard of care, to consider whether future enforcement of such action might "discourage persons from undertaking functions in connection with a desirable activity".

Launching the Bill in November, the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said: "The Bill will provide reassurance to those concerned about possible litigation that the law takes the social value of activities into account."

It is being viewed by some as an attempt to address the risk concerns of charities engaging large numbers of volunteers, and follows the failed Promotion of Volunteering Bill 2004, a Private Members' Bill that sought to address the issue by requiring voluntary bodies to provide those participating in activities managed by volunteers with a Statement of Inherent Risk.

That was opposed by an informal network of volunteer-involving agencies, most notably CSV, which warned that the Bill could do "more harm than good".

So far, however, CSV has welcomed the new legislation. A spokesman for the charity said: "Without having the opportunity to see the legislation tested within the courts, we would welcome the spirit of the Bill in removing some of the red tape facing the sector.

"The culture of litigation has made some organisations nervous about innovation and narrowly interprets what volunteers can and cannot do in terms of risk."

But Girlguiding UK, which engages more than 70,000 volunteers, believes the legislation should include greater protection for voluntary bodies.

It is calling for an extension to part one of the Bill so that courts take into account whether participants followed volunteers' instructions.

"Special attention should also be paid to the expression of sympathy by a volunteer in the event of an accident," said Jennie Lamb, the head of guiding development at Girlguiding UK.

She fears an apology by a volunteer to someone in their charge after an accident might be construed in court as an admission of guilt. "Accidents, by definition, are incidents without blame," said Lamb. "The Bill should acknowledge that an expression of regret should not be relevant in determining fault."

The Scout Association is also trying to encourage the Government to address fears of a 'compensation culture'. Along with Volunteering England, the charity is this week giving evidence on the issue to the Constitutional Affairs Committee.

"A recent survey has shown that the fear of a compensation culture is having a detrimental effect on the recruitment of adult volunteers," said David Shelmerdine, secretary of the Scout Association. "It also revealed that even those already working as volunteers have a fear of being sued for negligence - even though we adopt a risk assessment approach to our activities."

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