Risk and litigation in volunteering: the power of perception

Today saw the new legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech which will provide extra legal protection to people carrying out ‘good deeds’, volunteering or planning local events, who could be involved in liability claims. My colleague Elizabeth has summarised the other parts of the Speech which are important for the sector.

Anything that encourages people to get involved in their communities is good news, but it’s also worth looking at the extent of the problem that this measure is designed to solve: are large swathes of people really not volunteering because they are scared of being sued?

NCVO certainly gets quite a few calls from people asking for advice on liability. (The Cabinet Office’s guide to organising a voluntary event is a great resource here, by the way.) But millions of people of course do volunteer every month, so they’re, presumably, not deterred. (None of this is to say that volunteers and organisations shouldn’t pay due regard to their responsibilities for health and safety of volunteers, beneficiaries and others. The bill, rightly, still won’t protect people who have been negligent.)

One useful group of people to look at is past volunteers – people who were once involved but have since stopped. Why did they end their volunteering? Are they fussed about this issue? The 2007 national survey of volunteering asked people why they had stopped volunteering, and ‘too much concern about risk/liability’ was reported by less than half a per cent of respondents. Practical reasons – such as not enough time and changing work circumstances – dominated.

So does this mean this measure is a waste of time? Well, no. The same survey also questioned people who did not currently volunteered, but who wanted to. Of these, nearly half (47%) did not get involved because they were ‘worried about risk/liability’. This is a potentially huge number of people not taking part because they fear that they could be the victim of litigation. It may be a perception rather than the reality, but perceptions can nonetheless have a powerful influence on people’s behaviour. There’s an important caveat here though. Respondents were asked to choose from options from a predetermined list. It’s possible that responses to the risk/litigation option might not have been as high if they had not been prompted. It’s also important to recognise that people could choose more than one option; risk and litigation were unlikely to be the only factor that people cited as a reason for not volunteering.

It’s also worth remembering that however rare it is, even unsuccessful legal action has a massive impact on those involved.

Either way, improving legal protection for volunteers could potentially go a long way to reducing fear of litigation. We do need to remember that people’s reasons for not volunteering are myriad and addressing one barrier may not be sufficient to alter rates of volunteering nationally. But this evidence suggests that it could help, and we’ll be keenly watching to see how it affects people’s perceptions of getting involved, as well as their behaviour.

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Nick Ockenden Nick is the head of research at NCVO. As part of this he leads the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he has worked since 2005.

3 Responses to Risk and litigation in volunteering: the power of perception

  1. Katia says:

    There is a very real problem currently in our area that the adult social care service is being trimmed to a reduced service and adult social care is encouraging the community to do more for itself.

    There is a lot of interest in ‘informal’ volunteering as a way to respond. One challenge we’ve seen at the CVS is that organisations (and their insurers)are concerned about liability if a case or claim is made against a volunteer involved with their organisation.

    The impact of this is that many organisations will not operate the kind of less formal schemes that are being encouraged.

    In a culture of risk assessment and policies for every eventuality required of service providers, it is hard to mitigate the fear of liability.

    This legal protection policy is a move in the right direction, but will it extend to the organisations involving those volunteers, that are increasingly under pressure to ‘deliver’ volunteer schemes without any funding to support the running of them.

  2. Nick Ockenden says:

    Katia, thanks for your post. However, at this stage it’s too early to comment on the detail of the proposed bill and what exactly it will include but we’ll be keeping an eye on it.

  3. Bryn Price says:

    It is useful to remember that the “Good Samaritan” principle still applies in English law. In short this means that if a person voluntary helps another who is ion need and works within the bounds of what they have been trained to do, they are covered. This is of particular relevance to the First and and the Social Care sector.