Volunteering can come in many forms, whether it’s organizing an event, helping with a fundraiser, driving kids on an outing, or giving advice. Most volunteer activities pose little to no legal risk — but some do. Learn about the risks and how to minimize them.
What you should know
“I was volunteering at a church event, helping to park vehicles as guests arrived. I inadvertently left the keys in the ignition of a guest’s car. When they went to leave, their car was gone. It had been stolen. Thankfully, the police recovered it two days later, but the guest’s camping gear was missing from their trunk.”
– Savanna, Prince George, BC
Everyone in society has a duty of care towards others. This includes volunteers. While volunteering, you must take care not to cause damage or injury to the people you’re dealing with.
This duty is often called the duty to take reasonable care, as your conduct is put to the “reasonableness” test: Would a reasonable person in the same situation have behaved in a similar way? If so, you generally won’t be held legally responsible.
If you don’t take reasonable care, you can potentially be found negligent. In which case you (and the organization) can be required to compensate the person harmed, if they can show all of these things:
you owed them a duty of care
you did not take reasonable care
they suffered harm
the harm was caused by what you did or did not do
the harm was reasonably foreseeable
Take the example of Savanna, above. The guest would have a strong argument that Savanna was negligent. She interacted with them in carrying out her volunteer duties, so she owed them a duty of care. The guest could argue a reasonable person wouldn’t leave the keys in a car they were responsible for parking. The guest suffered harm, losing their camping gear. The harm was caused by what Savanna did, and it was reasonably foreseeable that a car with keys left in the ignition would be stolen.
The organization can also be found responsible
Organizations can be held liable for what their volunteers do. This is called vicarious liability. We explain this principle here.
A lot is at stake here. When volunteering to care for children, the law holds you to a higher standard of care. You have a duty to take the care that a careful parent or guardian would take in a similar situation.
As well, the law imposes additional duties on you.
Duty to supervise
You have a duty to supervise the children and protect them against dangers. Reasonable supervision might best be illustrated by a few examples.
Toxic or harmful chemicals (like paints or glues) should be safely stored.
Play gym structures should be well-maintained and age-appropriate. If something looks broken, don’t let a child play on it.
Trampolines and bouncy castles require a high degree of supervision.
For sport activities, ensure kids have the right equipment and plenty of water to drink.
Duty to not abandon
You can’t leave children unattended. And you have a duty to continue caring for them until they are safely in the care of another person.
Duty to rescue
If a child is in harm’s way, you can’t just stand by; you have a duty to try to rescue them. This doesn’t require you to endanger your own safety. You must do what a reasonable person in similar circumstances would do.
But if you, the volunteer, created the problem, there will be more scrutiny. For example, if you take a group of kids to the beach, and one gets dragged out by the current, you’ll be expected to help save them. You might throw out a floatation device, call for help, or go out on a boat to aid in the rescue.
Duty to not use excessive force
Force should only be used as a last resort — for instance, if the safety of other kids depends on your removing this child from the playground right now. Force should never be used for disciplinary reasons.
Duty to report child abuse
Any child abuse you see, you must report. Here’s how you do so.
This adds up to a lot
As you can see, the vigilance bar is high. If you’re considering volunteering to supervise kids, make sure you’re ready and able to handle it, and make sure the organization has the right safeguards in place (or you do, if you’re doing it on your own).
A heightened duty of care also applies here, just as it does with children. When volunteering with older adults or people with disabilities, you must take extra care not to cause damage or injury to them.
In interacting with people with disabilities, there’s a further duty. You, as the volunteer, must make reasonable efforts to accommodate their participation in services made available to the public. For example, a person with a disability should be able to access an accessible washroom. Ultimately, the onus will be on the organization you’re engaging with to put accommodation measures in place. But it’s still important for you, as an individual volunteer, to ensure the available accommodations are offered.
With some activities volunteers engage in, there are more things to consider.
Your passengers will reasonably expect to make it to their destination in one piece. Volunteers must ensure that the vehicle is safe to drive, that the conditions are safe to drive in, and that passengers can safely enter and exit the vehicle. Additional care should be taken when driving children, older adults, or people with disabilities.
A volunteer who gives bad information or advice can be held responsible for it. But this doesn’t apply to all volunteers providing advice. Here are some situations to consider:
If you give advice to the public (who don’t pay for it) as part of your job. For example, say you routinely handle inquiries at a telephone legal clinic. If you give bad advice, you could potentially be held liable for it. But if it’s not part of your job description — like giving someone your opinion while you drive them to an event — then that’s less of a worry.
If the advice recipient thinks you are an expert. For example, if you prepare a tax return for someone saying you’ve done this sort of thing many times before, and they get assessed major penalties because of bad advice you gave, you could be held liable for that.
The recipient will have to rely on your advice and be harmed in order for them to make any claim against you or the organization you volunteered for. All this to say, if you’re going to give advice as part of a volunteer position, it’s best to be knowledgeable. And not afraid to say “I don’t know” if you aren’t sure.
Outdoor and adventure recreation
Participants in these kinds of activities will be relying on guides to keep them safe. At the very least, these volunteer guides should ensure proper safety equipment is in place, and that participants can safely partake. (They should confirm that they are physically fit and capable. This may come in the form of a liability waiver; more on those here.)
The duty of care is the most important duty of any volunteer. But there are other legal duties and laws to be aware of when you’re volunteering. Here are three key ones:
Duty of confidentiality. Volunteers have an obligation to keep information confidential. For example, if you’re volunteering in a health care setting, don’t share a patient’s health condition with anyone outside their circle of care. Or if you’re volunteering with a non-profit that helps victims of abuse, don’t share the identity or details of a client with anyone outside the organization.
Duty not to discriminate. BC human rights law applies to organizations involved in providing public services, education or housing, among others. Anyone volunteering with them mustn’t engage in discriminatory practices. This means they can’t treat anyone badly or unfairly because of certain parts of their identity, such as race or sex or disability. For examples, see our discrimination coverage.
Copyright laws. Organizations and volunteers may decide to distribute material as part of a program they offer. In doing so, be aware of any copyright issues. For example, you might not have the right to photocopy and hand out an educational booklet that someone made for your organization without the needed permissions. Copyright laws provide that only the creator of material has the right to reproduce the material (more detail on these rules can be found here). Some materials say on them that reproduction for non-commercial uses is allowed. In other cases, you could contact the creator to ask permission to reproduce the material (talk up the public good angle!).
“My strata president kept asking me each year to join the strata council. I had small kids when we first moved in, but eventually I felt like I had it in me to step up. I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be — monthly meetings, reviews of the budget, handling owner complaints, deciding on how to award pretty big repair projects. It was a lot to be responsible for.
– Armand, Burnaby, BC
Non-profits and for-profits often do not pay their directors. This includes anyone sitting on the board of an organization or a strata (where the board is known as a strata council). Whether paid or not, all directors of organizations have a fiduciary responsibility. This means:
They have to act with diligence, care, and skill. Directors are expected to attend meetings and be prepared. They should not always rely on the opinions of others, but ask questions and be certain they are making appropriate decisions. They should play an active role in overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the organization they serve and ensure they have selected responsible managers.
They should act with prudence. Directors should avoid unreasonable risks. For example, they shouldn’t approve expenses if they know the organization can’t afford it.
They must avoid conflicts of interest. Directors can’t profit from their position. For example, if a non-profit organization needs to award a contract for IT services, a director who owns an IT company shouldn’t recommend their own organization for the job.
This just scratches the surface of director duties. A key thing to remember is that acting as a director of an organization can be a big commitment. If you feel overwhelmed, it may be best to resign, rather than do a bad job and expose yourself and the organization to liability.
We’ve looked at how the law treats volunteers depending on the nature of their role. Now let’s look at some strategies to help prevent legal headaches.
Is it just a one-off event, or an ongoing thing? Are you up to the task? By saying yes you’re agreeing to take the job seriously; just because it’s unpaid doesn’t mean you can coast. Before you commit, get all of the details — and review the situations above, under what you should know — to understand how your actions might be judged if something happens.
Depending on the type of activity, this could mean having the right safety gear or enough volunteers to staff an event or service. But there are other important items an organization might have to take care of, like having the right insurance or liability waivers for activity participants.
The organization might also want you to sign a contract with them before you start volunteering. Review this contract with extreme caution. You might be giving away some of your rights if a participant ends up making a claim against you or the organization. In fact, you might want to modify this contract (or provide your own) to have it specifically require the organization to defend any claim that comes against you. Consulting a lawyer could be a good idea here, especially if you’re committing to a big or ongoing volunteer activity.
There are insurance policies that can protect volunteers. Often your home or contents insurance can step in. For example, casualty coverage (for damage or loss caused by things like vandalism or fire), may cover personal losses that occur as a result of volunteer activities. Liability coverage may insure against lawsuits from third parties, such as a participant who becomes injured. Check with an insurance broker to confirm you have the right coverage in place.
And if you’re volunteering as a board member, ask the organization if they have an insurance policy in place that takes care of board members if they get sued. It’s not necessarily a red flag if they don’t have one — not all organizations can afford it — but if it’s a big commitment from you, or if the organization operates in a risky area (like extreme sports, for example), you might want to make sure you’re properly protected.
Let’s say you’re volunteering at an event. When you arrive, you immediately smell trouble. It could be you have too much responsibility — maybe you’re the only volunteer being asked to take care of 15 kids. Or the space is way too small to handle the number of participants that are about to show up. Say something to the people who hired you. Your role as a volunteer is to address any foreseeable risks before they happen. And if that means an event has to be cancelled, so be it.
It’s bad enough to have someone injure themselves at an event you were staffing. But it’s even worse if they try to hold you responsible for it (even though you acted reasonably).
If you do get a legal letter or a court summons, take pause, and review our guidance on answering a legal letter. You probably have some time to consider how you would like to respond. It might be that the person seeking compensation doesn’t have a good case at all. Or it might be that the organization you volunteered for should be responding to this instead.
Either way, don’t just ignore the issue. That could result in a court handing down a default judgment, where you lose the case because you didn’t show up. Often things can get settled out of court. If you want to ask a lawyer about it, check out our list of options for free or low-cost help.
Who can help
Access Pro Bono's Everyone Legal Clinic
Clinicians provide affordable fixed-fee services for those starting a small business or non-profit.
Access Pro Bono Program for Non-profits
Free legal help for BC-based charities and non-profits of limited means.
UBC Law School's Student Advice Program
Law students provide help to people with limited means in the Vancouver area.