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Legal Obligations for Volunteers & Organizations

In addition to the duty to take care, there are certain legal obligations that both organizations and volunteers must consider when doing their work. In the simplest terms volunteers and organizations, like everyone else in society, must obey the law. Volunteers and organizations need to be aware of the laws that could apply to their activities.

Some of these laws, such as the criminal law, require little explanation. Generally everyone understands that it is no more acceptable to commit a crime as a volunteer or an organization than it would be to commit a crime as an individual. Other laws, such as human rights laws, copyright laws, defamation laws and child protection laws deal with matters that individuals may have little awareness or understanding of.

Human Rights Laws

Provincial human rights laws do not generally apply to people in their private lives. For example, a complaint could not be made because someone did not invite a person to their house for coffee because of the colour of their skin. However, when people assume volunteer roles they often act in spheres where laws against discrimination do apply. A volunteer or organization involved in providing public services, education or housing, for example, must not discriminate against people when doing this work.

In these situations there are protected grounds, such as religion, gender and disabilities. It is against human rights law to discriminate on the basis of any of these grounds. For example, an organization could not treat participants differently on the based on their religion. As part of not discriminating on the basis of disability organizations may also have a duty to accommodate people who have special needs based on their disability.

Organizations and volunteers may decide to distribute material as part of a program they are running. Unless they have created this material themselves there could be copyright issues. Copyright laws provide that only the creator of the material has the right to reproduce the material. This applies to everything including photographs and material published on a website.

Some materials will say right on them that reproduction for non-commercial uses is allowed. In other cases the creator of the material can be contacted and may be willing to give permission to a charity or service organization to reproduce the material free-of-charge or for a nominal fee.

Defamation

If a volunteer or organization makes a false statement which ridicules a person or lowers that person’s standing in the community or deters others from associating or dealing with the person it may be considered defamation. For defamation to arise, the words must be more than just rudeness or insults. There must be a false statement that is aimed at injuring a person’s reputation. The statement must be communicated in some way to a party other than the person defamed who understands its significance. The statement could be verbal, called slander or in print, called libel.

There are defences such as fair comment that allow people to comment or express an opinion on matters of public interest. But this must be a comment, not a statement of facts, and must be based on the truth. The court will ask if a reasonable person might see the opinion as one that a fair-minded person could have expressed. If so, the statement is fair comment. This is a complex area of the law so if there is any concern about making a statement a lawyer should be consulted.

Child Protection Laws

Organizations and volunteers who work with children need to be aware of their duty to report abuse or neglect. Anyone who has reasonable grounds to believe a child is in need of protection must report it to the police or a child protection agency, such as Social Services or a First Nations Child and Family Services Agency, immediately.

Circumstances that may result in a child being found to be in need of protection include...

  • Physical abuse — any action, including physical discipline, which causes injury to the child’s body
  • Sexual abuse — any action that involves a child in any sexual activity including sexual touching, exposure to sexual activity, using a child in the making of/or viewing pornography, and/or involving a child in prostitution
  • Emotional mistreatment — expecting a child to be able to do things he or she cannot do, embarrassing or insulting a child, making hurtful comments about a child’s appearance, intelligence, size, ability, etc.
  • Neglect — failing to provide a child with enough proper food, clothing, shelter, health care, or supervision

If a report is made out of concern for a child, the person making the report is protected from legal action even if the child is found to not be in need of protection. Deliberately making a false report could, however, result in legal consequences.

A person reporting suspected abuse or neglect is not required to provide their name. If the person reporting does provide their name, this information remains confidential. However, if the matter proceeds to court the name of the person reporting the abuse can no longer be kept confidential.

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PLEA gratefully acknowledges our primary core funder the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan for their continuing and generous support of our organization.