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 Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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