The media were reporting (BBC News) on Monday that Chris Rennard was intending to take legal action against the Liberal Democrats over the suspension of his membership. Having previously written about the role of the different bodies of the English Party in the process of this suspension I was concerned to note that the proposed legal action is directed towards named individuals holding party positions. As The Guardian’s report puts it:
The letter keeps open the possibility of holding senior party figures personally liable, because the Liberal Democrat party is an unincorporated association, which means it does not possess “legal personality”. It is addressed to Mike Wheatley, chair of the regional parties committee, Margaret Joachim, vice-chair of the committee, and Peter Ellis, chair of the Liberal Democrats English party. If Rennard won a court action they might have to pay his legal costs and damages.
I think it is important to point out that all three of these individuals are volunteers. They are not employees of the Party. None of them receive any compensation for the work they do for the English Party (except possibly occasional travel expenses). Irrespective of whether these individuals have acted correctly in this matter, and/or acted legally, I don’t feel it is right that they should be under any threat of financial penalty for acting in a voluntary capacity.
The Liberal Democrats as an organisation is dependent on volunteers. Without them it couldn’t operate and often these volunteers take on a considerable amount of responsibility. However, those in such positions are almost always acting on behalf of the Party in a wider sense. So I am troubled that a situation could occur in which individuals can be threatened with legal action rather than the body (in this case the English Party) on whose behalf they are acting.
I think two things need to happen:
- The Party needs to ensure that, if these individuals do end up in a situation where they have to pay costs and damages because of legal action, arrangements are made for these costs to be met by the Party as a whole.
- Where possible the structures and legal status of the Party is changed so that where decisions are made that could become the subject of legal challenge volunteers working within it have greater protection.
I’m not a legal expert and so may be missing some of the subtelties of this situation. Nor do I want to suggest that those in positions of responsibility who act incompetently or maliciously should be protected from the consequences. However, instinctively I feel that it is wrong for those participating within a voluntary organisation to become personally liable in this way.