The Risk Exposures of Volunteer Libraries

 

Tim Larden

Tim Larden

Tim Larden is the Managing Director of Ladbrook Insurance, a specialist in working with non-profit groups. He advertises with Public Libraries News and recently met up with me for lunch to discuss volunteer libraries.  One of the things that came up during the conversation was the risks involved: something that of course is quite important to an insurer.  We discussed the issues involved and this blog post from him was suggested.  I think it quite usefully sums up one of the major issues with volunteer libraries and so I am happy to publish it here.

 The Risk Exposures of Volunteer Libraries 

Community libraries represent a whole new model of library service delivery.  While the numbers are growing, community library groups are still young and there are a host of new library groups forming. Initially, in researching the sector, one could not escape the fact that councils closing libraries is widely unpopular in communities.  Most volunteer library groups are not set up from some desire in the community to wrestle control from the council, rather they are the only solution left when the consultation music stops and the result is closure.   Then, at the last extremity, the very people that often campaigned vigorously against the library cuts, often end up completing that process by setting up a community library group to save their local service.  This, in no way is hypocrisy, it is purely pragmatism.

“Most volunteer library groups are not set up from some desire in the community to wrestle control from the council, rather they are the only solution left when the consultation music stops and the result is closure.”

It has had an impact on us at Ladbrook though.  One might assume that since we are supporting such groups with a specific community library product ergo we are supporters of the community library model.  Well, not quite.  Personally, I am a supporter of people campaigning to keep their local library services fully funded within their authority, I have joined the friends of group trying to keep my childhood library open within Walsall Borough Councils .  I am also a supporter of those communities who have taken up the management reigns themselves rather than lose a valuable local service once the writing was on the wall. Irrespective of how you feel about the need for such services to be provided by voluntary groups, you can only wish those groups that do step up, the best of luck.

I have been researching and working with Community Libraries intensively this year.  I have spent time at libraries looking at the risks they face and read all manner of reports from government bodies, enthusiastic commentators, CILIP et al.  It was the nature of libraries that drove me to do this.  They have some fairly unique insurance facets that I wanted to consider.

When I first started discussing libraries with senior underwriters, understandably, our initial attention was captured by the value of their contents.  A small library might hold £50,000-70,000 of flammable book stock and computer equipment.  However, theft of IT hardware is a declining risk as is fire and while a library should ensure these risks are properly insured and mitigated (fire alarm etc), they are no more than normal risks.  Indeed, I was easily able to argue the case for removing security warranties. This means that if a volunteer or committee member makes a mistake such as a window being left open, it will not invalidate a claim.

“If I were taking over a library building from my local authority, the state of the roof would be high on my list of priorities, whether or not I was to be responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings.”

A more concerning risk to the contents might be water damage.  Many rural or suburban library buildings are one-storey flat roofed structures.  If I were taking over a library building from my local authority, the state of the roof would be high on my list of priorities, whether or not I was to be responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings.   For some libraries, data is also a concern.  Libraries do hold personal data and some might be deemed sensitive, particularly where records of medical literature exist.  In my experience, community groups setting up are conscious of this but managing it across a large volunteer bank without the support of a local authority might expose some community groups.

Of course, different activities bring different risks.  We included ‘hirers liability’ in the product which protects the library from risks associated with renting the space to other community groups.  Libraries running a café have some specific risks as do those running IT or employment courses.  Also, the liability of trustees will be a risk that some management committees face, depending on the legal structure of the group.

However, one of the most interesting aspects of risk that a library group will face comes from the nature of the workforce, the volunteers.  I use the word workforce with some trepidation as it masks an important issue in managing volunteers and the risks they present to the library group.

Libraries, Volunteers and Liabilities

First of all, in the eyes of the Health and Safety law, volunteers are not employees.  This does not stop though the duty of care that a library group owes to their volunteers.  Any volunteer can sue their non profit group if they have not shown a duty of care and a financial loss or injury has occurred.  This risk therefore in relation to injury is no different to that of an employee / employer relationship.

This risk therefore in relation to injury is no different to that of an employee / employer relationship.

I was speaking with one community library group recently who were surprised to find that the council previously would use expensive maintenance engineers just to change a light bulb.  While this might seem excessive, the risk exists that if a volunteer suffers an injury performing this function, they might find legal recourse if they could demonstrate that the library group had not properly considered their safety.  An increasingly litigious society is a factor that all of our clients face.

However, another key consideration for library management is the exposure they create for themselves for employment right issues.  That sounds perverse when talking about volunteers but it is a risk that your library group could fall vulnerable to. One of the mistakes that charities of all shapes and sizes can make is to conflate the requirement to provide a duty of care with traditional professional standards in employee management.  It is understandable but it bears a risk.

another key consideration for library management is the exposure they create for themselves for employment right issues

Surprisingly to many, there is no legal definition of what a volunteer is.  This does not prevent volunteers though from seeking recourse if they feel they have been badly treated by a non profit group.  This is particularly true if a case can be made that the relationship between library group and volunteer is more akin to employer / employee.  In this way, a volunteer might successfully argue that their interactions were more than simply voluntary services.

Employees are used to having contracts of employment laying out terms and conditions of work and obligations on both sides.  Many non profit groups have tried to replicate this.  In doing so, it is vital that a ‘volunteers agreement’ does not stray into areas that obligate the individual volunteer.  Personally, if I were a library group, I would avoid such documents.  Essentially, the more the relationship looks like an employer/employee set up, the more inclined an employment tribunal might be to treat it as such allowing a volunteer to bring actions against the group usually reserved for employees.

“it is vital that a ‘volunteers agreement’ does not stray into areas that obligate the individual volunteer.  Personally, if I were a library group, I would avoid such documents.”

For this same reason, libraries should avoid paying or rewarding volunteers (other than usual expenses), providing benefits or disciplining them for not turning up for a ‘shift’.  Ensuring your library volunteers are not in a formal or contractual relationship will go a long way to reducing the risks your library group faces.

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