Employment Law Cases

Volunteers and employment status

Groom v Maritime and Coastguard Agency

A volunteer in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency was a worker when undertaking remunerated activities, despite copious references in his documentation to him being a volunteer.


Mr Groom was a coastal rescue officer (CRO) for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), working under a volunteer agreement. His handbook described his membership of the MCA as ‘entirely voluntary’ and stated that the relationship between the MCA and its volunteers was a ‘voluntary two-way commitment where no contract of employment exists’. It also emphasised the lack of mutuality of obligation. Volunteers were expected to abide by a Code of Conduct which, amongst other things, required CROs to attend specified levels of training and maintain a reasonable level of incident attendance. The handbook allowed volunteers to submit monthly claims for payment to cover minor costs but also to compensate for disruption to personal life and employment and in light of unsocial hours call outs. Payments included payment for time (at an hourly rate of remuneration), travel and expenses with a calculation of amounts payable for different specified things, at different rates for different roles. Payment was by payslip and P60s were issued at the end of tax year. Following a disciplinary hearing, Mr Groom’s membership was terminated and he was subsequently issued with a P45. He complained to a tribunal that the MCA was in breach of the requirement to permit him to be accompanied by a trade union representative at a disciplinary hearing. The claim depended on him being able to establish that he was a ‘worker’.

A tribunal held that there was no contract between Mr Groom and the MCA and thus he wasn’t a worker -it was just a voluntary relationship. Among the factors pointing to it being a voluntary relationship were that the documentation described it as such and that there was no automatic remuneration – and many volunteers made no payment claims at all. Mr Groom appealed.

EAT decision

The appeal was allowed.

The EAT noted that ‘volunteer’ is not a term of art and there was nothing in case law authority to support the argument that as a matter of law a volunteer provides his or her services on a non-contractual basis. Each case must be examined on its facts and describing something as 'volunteering' isn’t determinative.

The EAT held that the tribunal had made various errors (in relation to remuneration and mutuality of obligation) in finding there was no contract:

  • Mr Groom’s documentation clearly created a right to remuneration in respect of many activities. It was irrelevant that he had to apply for the remuneration - this was no more than a payment mechanism and had no impact of the issue of his status. Similarly, the fact that other CROs hadn’t made claims for payment.
  • A contract came into being every time a CRO attended an activity in respect of which there was a right to remuneration – and that contract was for the provision of services. They attended in the context of the Code of Conduct which specified minimum levels of attendance at training and at incidents.

As there was no dispute that Mr Groom met the other elements of the statutory test for worker status (he had to perform the work personally and the MCA was not a client or customer of a business carried on my Mr Groom), the EAT substituted a finding that Mr Groom was a worker during the periods when he was undertaking an activity with promised payment.


On the face of it, the word ‘volunteer’ would seem to rule out a contractual relationship since it suggests there is no obligation. However, this decision is a useful reminder that just because you label someone as a ‘volunteer’ doesn’t necessarily make it so. Volunteers hold no special status as a matter of law – their status depends upon an analysis of the particular relationship under which they provide their services.