A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision serves as a reminder that labelling an individual as a 'volunteer' does not necessarily prevent them from having employee or worker status – it will depend on the practical reality of the situation rather than the label attached by the parties.


In Groom v Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Mr Groom was one of around 3500 volunteers engaged by the Coastguard Rescue Service (CRS). The relationship was described as a 'voluntary two-way commitment where no contract of employment exists’.

Mr Groom and his fellow volunteers were governed by a volunteer handbook which set out CRS standards. Under this agreement, volunteers were expected to attend training and maintain a 'reasonable level of incident attendance'. The handbook also stated that for certain activities costs could be claimed to cover 'minor costs caused by your volunteering, and to compensate for any disruption to your personal life and employment and for unsocial hours call outs'.

Mr Groom had volunteered with CRS since 1985 but a dispute arose after he was invited to a disciplinary hearing in May 2020. CRS did not allow Mr Groom to bring a trade union representative to the hearing and he subsequently brought a claim that this was in breach of his rights as a worker.


When determining whether Mr Groom should be classified as a worker, the EAT noted that 'volunteer' is not a term of art, and that volunteers do not have any special legal status. It was, therefore, necessary to consider the actual working relationship between Mr Groom and CRS.

The EAT overturned the decision of the employment tribunal and found that Mr Groom was a worker - a contract was formed between him and CRS each time he attended an activity for which he was entitled to be paid.

Key to the EAT's finding was Mr Groom's entitlement to be paid for certain activities. In essence a bargain had been made that if Mr Groom worked, he would be paid for this work. It did not matter that he would have to claim these costs and that many volunteers never did. It was also important that this remuneration was compensation for loss of time and was not simply a payment for genuine out-of-pocket expenses.

The EAT found that this payment, coupled with the volunteer's handbook and Code of Conduct setting minimum levels of attendance at training and rescue incidents, gave rise to a contract. As it was not disputed that Mr Groom was to perform the activities personally, he met the test to be classified as worker.

The EAT did not have to decide whether Mr Groom was a worker during the periods he was not carrying out any work for CRS.

What does this mean for those seeking to engage volunteers?

The key takeaway from the case is that, depending on the facts, volunteers could be 'employees' or 'workers' - it will always depend on the particular arrangements that apply in practice. Mr Groom was held to be a worker despite his role being governed by a volunteer handbook, which made repeated references to those following it being 'volunteers'.

It is important to know the employment status of a volunteer as being an employee or worker gives rise to certain rights. Workers are, for example, entitled to the national minimum wage, paid holidays and the right to be accompanied at disciplinary and grievance hearings.

Workbox by Brodies

Detailed information about the employment status and potential rights of volunteers, interns, and those on work experience can be found on our Workbox by Brodies site. Workbox users will also find a list of steps to reduce the risk of employee or worker status, as well as our template volunteer and intern agreements.


Elia Davidson

Trainee Solicitor