Volunteers at community organisations are often surprised to discover that their legal responsibilities are little different from those of businesses run for profit. For example, a community organisation that fails to comply with health and safety regulations risks harming people in just the same way as a business does.
Despite the complexity of all the regulations, focusing on key areas will help to ensure that you stay on the right side of the law. And if there are particular issues that you need help with, advice and support are easy to find and often free of charge.
1. Your personal responsibilities
Operate the organisation according to its rules
- Your organisation should have some form of governing document, setting out what its purpose is and how it operates. For example, how decisions are taken.
- If your organisation is a charity, you must comply with charity law such as ensuring that funds are used for charitable purposes.
- If your organisation is a company, you must comply with company law. For example, by making annual confirmations to Companies House.
Act honestly, responsibly and carefully
- You have a duty to the organisation, to the people who use its services and to any employees or volunteers.
- You must act in the interests of the organisation, not your own.
Look after key issues
- Ensure that the organisation is financially solvent, and that money and other assets are properly looked after.
- Identify and manage potential risks. Draw up proper policies for how the organisation manages key issues and ensure that volunteers and employees have any training they need.
- Take professional advice when it is needed.
Ensure that you are protected against personal liability
- In some circumstances, you could be held personally accountable for what the organisation has done or failed to do.
- If your organisation becomes insolvent, you could be personally liable for the organisation’s debts if the organisation is not a company.
- You can also be personally liable as a company director if you allow the organisation to carry on trading with no reasonable chance of avoiding insolvency, or if you act fraudulently.
- Acting honestly, responsibly and carefully helps to protect you against personal liability.
- If possible, you should ensure that the organisation has insurance protecting its trustees, directors or management against personal liability.
2. Health and safety
Identify potential health and safety hazards
- Assessing risks, and taking steps to manage them, is key to successfully managing health and safety.
- Ask volunteers and any employees if they are aware of any health and safety risks.
- Check instructions on any supplies you purchase (eg cleaning products) or machinery.
You can usually identify most risks by inspecting your premises yourself
Look for hazards such as:
- places where people might slip, trip or fall;
- unsafe electrics such as overloaded plug sockets or damaged equipment;
- manually lifting heavy loads (the biggest cause of injuries);
- dangerous machinery or chemicals;
- fire risks and inadequate fire precautions.
Think about the health and safety risks of all your organisation’s activities
- This may include services provided at other premises and special events (such as a fundraising event).
- Judge risks by what is reasonable. Many activities (eg sports) are inherently risky, but provided your facilities and procedures meet generally accepted standards they are unlikely to be unacceptably risky.
Take into account the different types of people who might be at risk
- These might include volunteers helping at the organisation, members of the public using the organisation’s services or premises, and any employees you have.
- Some groups of people may be particularly vulnerable. For example, the disabled.
Take reasonable steps to eliminate risks or at least reduce them to an acceptable level
- Simple practical steps can eliminate many risks like repairing loose floorboards and ensuring that corridors are well-lit, or switching to safe cleaning products.
- Introduce safe working practices and make sure volunteers and others are properly trained.
- Provide a first aid kit and the names and contact details of any trained first aiders.
Keep records and review your assessment regularly
- Re-assess the risks when anything changes – for example, if you decide to hold a special event or purchase new equipment.
Check for any specific regulations applying to your organisation and activities
- For example, enclosed premises must be smoke free and display a no smoking sign. Organisations that provide food will need to comply with food safety as well as hygiene regulations and register with the local authority.
- Legal requirements are more stringent for organisations with paid employees. For example, if you have five or more employees, you must have a written health and safety policy and written records of risk assessments.
Get advice if necessary
- Common sense, and comparing what other similar organisations do, can guide you through most issues. You are not expected to eliminate every possible risk.
- Your local authority environmental health department is responsible for enforcing health and safety law. They can provide advice to help you avoid problems.
3. Your activities
Minimise your impact on the environment
- Make sure you store and dispose of waste properly.
- Avoid causing a nuisance to your neighbours (for example, with noise or cooking smells). Your local authority can take action against you if you cause a ‘statutory nuisance’.
- Activities that cause pollution or emissions are likely to need authorisation. Contact your local authority.
Check what regulations apply to your particular activities
- For example, organisations involved with education or providing care services may need to be registered. Trade associations, regulatory bodies and local authorities are all possible ways of getting help.
- Particular care needs to be taken if you work with children or vulnerable adults. You should have appropriate policies to protect them, and may need to carry out Disclosure and Barring Service checks on volunteers and employees.
- You need a licence from your local authority to sell alcohol.
- If you play music at your premises, you are likely to need a PRS and/or a PPL licence.
- If you hold any events (eg fundraising), you may need authorising with a ‘temporary event notice’. Contact your local authority.
Ensure that you do not discriminate in the way you provide services
- You must take reasonable steps to give disabled people access to the services you provide. For example, you might need to adapt your premises to make them accessible.
- It is generally illegal to discriminate against people because of their age, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, gender, sex or sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, or disability.
- There are some exceptions to discrimination rules. For example, if your organisation is set up specifically to help members of a particular ethnic group.
Do not trade unfairly
- If you sell products or services to the public, you must deal with them fairly and honestly. For example, you must not use aggressive sales tactics or leave out important information.
Comply with regulations relating to particular kinds of fundraising
- You must have a licence for street collections. Contact your local authority.
- Public raffles and lotteries normally require registration with your local authority.
Understand your responsibilities for the actions of employees and volunteers
- You may be responsible for what they do. For example, if they cause a loss to somebody or enter into an agreement on behalf of the organisation.
- Make sure you have clear rules on who has the authority to commit the organisation to an agreement, and when the agreement needs authorisation by the management.
- Ensure that volunteers and employees are properly trained.
Respect employees’ rights
Employees have a range of rights, including:
- limits on the working week, and requirements for rest breaks during the working day and annual holiday allowances;
- various entitlements such as maternity and paternity leave, Statutory Maternity Pay and Statutory Sick Pay;
- time off to look after dependants, carry out union duties and for various other reasons;
- protection against unfair dismissal.
Employment disputes can be time-consuming and costly
- You may want to investigate insurance to cover potential legal expenses.
Comply with other employment law
- You must provide a written statement of the main terms and conditions of their employment.
- You must have proper disciplinary and grievance procedures.
Use PAYE to pay employees
- You are legally required to pay employers’ National Insurance contributions (NICs), and to deduct employees’ NICs and income tax from their pay.
- As operating PAYE can be complicated and time-consuming, you may want to purchase payroll software or use a payroll service to do it for you.
Do not discriminate
- It is generally illegal to discriminate in how you recruit and treat employees on the basis of age, gender or gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, marriage and civil partnership, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, or disability.
- There are limited exceptions where there is good reason to employ someone from a particular group. For example, a female care worker to work with vulnerable women.
5. Other legal issues
Comply with laws on accounting records, filing accounts and reports and paying taxes
- You must keep proper financial records.
- You will need to provide an annual confirmation and accounts to the Charity Commission (if you are a registered charity) and Companies House (if you are a company).
- You may have to pay tax, even if you are a non-profit-making organisation.
Handle personal information carefully
- If you keep any personal information on individuals, you must comply with data protection regulations. For example, you must keep the information secure and must not misuse it.
- You may be required to notify the Information Commissioner, though most community organisations are not.
Get the right insurance for the organisation and its assets and activities
- You must have employers’ liability insurance (if you have employees) and third party insurance for any vehicles.
- You should get public liability insurance to cover potential claims from members of the public affected by your organisation.
6. Getting help
Look for information and help from bodies that support community organisations
- Support organisations include the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
- You can find local support organisations in your area through the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action.
Ask your local authority for advice
- Local authorities’ legal responsibilities include a range of licensing. They may also be able to offer grants to support some activities.
Check with trade associations and regulatory bodies for your particular activities
- You can find trade associations covering your kind of activity from the Trade Association Forum.
If necessary, get professional advice
- You may be able to get free or subsidised legal advice through ProHelp or LawWorks.
- Find guidance for charities from the Charity Commission.
- Find guidance for companies from Companies House (0303 1234 500).
- Find extensive guidance in the KnowHow NonProfit knowledge bank provided by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
- Find a local support organisation for help setting up and running a community organisation through the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action.
- Find health and safety guidance from the Health & Safety Executive.
- Find out about your data protection obligations from the Information Commissioner’s Office (0303 123 1113).
- Get free legal advice through LawWorks.
- Find out about free professional help from Business in the Community’s ProHelp network.
- Find out about employing staff and PAYE from HM Revenue & Customs.
- Find a trade association relevant to your sector through the Trade Association Forum.
- Find out about PRS and PPL licences for playing music.
The law is complex. This factsheet reflects our understanding of the basic legal position as known at the last update. Obtain legal advice on your own specific circumstances and check whether any relevant rules have changed.
DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances, and is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered in this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.