Whistleblowing-related claims carry potentially unlimited damages, so the stakes couldn’t be higher for charities to handle whistleblowing correctly.

Why are Charities different?

We know that many people who work for charities don’t simply do it for the pay. We meet many people in the sector who are driven by purpose, passion and commitment to a community or cause. In that context, there is an argument that charities are more susceptible to whistleblowing disputes.


Charity Commission statistics show a dramatic 75% increase in whistleblowing disclosures received by them from 2019/2020 to 2020/2021, reflecting a recent trend that charity trustees and managers should be very alive to:

  • 2020/21 – 431 disclosures
  • 2019/20 – 247
  • 2018/19 – 185
  • 2017/18 – 101

The top three reported issues in 2020 to 2021 were:

  1. Governance failures and other poor behaviour
  2. Financial harms
  3. Safeguarding

Role of the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission is the regulatory body for appropriate disclosures on matters relating to ‘the proper administration of charities and funds given, or held, for charitable purposes’.

What is Whistleblowing? A recap

Whistleblowing is a term that often gets used without either employers or staff really understanding what is needed to qualify for protection. It is a complex legal area and can give rise to cases with large compensation awards – do take advice! To be protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) and Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA) a ‘whistleblower’ has to be an employee or worker.

There are six types of disclosure that are protected (the ‘subject matter’ test):

  1. A criminal offence
  2. Miscarriage of justice
  3. Breach of any legal obligation
  4. Danger to the health and safety of an individual
  5. Damage to the environment
  6. The deliberate concealing of information about any of the above

What are the other tests?

Whether a whistleblower qualifies for protection also depends on these tests:

  • Disclosure of information – has this actually happened? Merely gathering evidence or threatening to make a disclosure is not sufficient
  • Reasonable belief – the worker must have a “reasonable belief” that the information tends to show one of the subject matter failures had occurred or was likely to occur
  • In the public interest – the worker must have a reasonable belief that the disclosure is in the public interest. Given the nature of what charities do, arguably this is an easier test for a charity worker to meet, than an employee in a business for example
  • The identity of the person to whom the disclosure is made (further conditions depend on who this is). Internal disclosure (to a more senior employee or trustee in the charity) is the encouraged method. A disclosure to the Charity Commission (as the ‘prescribed person’) is likely to gain protection quite easily. Although, the person disclosing would need to reasonably believe the matter falls within the Charity Commission’s area of responsibility and that the information and any allegations are substantially true.

What protection does PIDA create for workers?

The main protections are against:

  • ‘Detriment’ – workers have the right not to be subjected to any detriment in their employment on the ground that they have made a protected disclosure. The meaning of ‘detriment’ has been construed broadly by courts, but is based on a person suffering disadvantage in the circumstances in which they have to work. Detriments could include being ignored for promotion, or sidelined from training and development opportunities (for example)
  • Dismissal – employees will be regarded as automatically unfairly dismissed if the reason (or principal reason) for the dismissal is that they have made a protected disclosure. The normal two-year qualifying period for unfair dismissal does not apply so you should be aware of this risk from day one of employment

What might you not be aware of?

Volunteers and the self-employed are not (or unlikely to be) protected by PIDA. But you should still take their concerns raised seriously, not least for reputational risk. A whistleblowing disclosure does not need to be in writing. It can be as simple as a verbal report from an employee to their line manager. Ensure managers know this.

A Serious Incident Report (SCR) to the Charity Commission might well be a protected disclosure too, but is not automatically so. It must still meet the above tests. Before 25 June 2013, a qualifying disclosure (made to anyone other than a legal advisor) had to be made “in good faith” for it to be protected. That is no longer the case, it must just meet the tests above.

As well as vicarious liability for the charity itself (in a successful claim) since 2013 workers can also name individuals as respondents to a tribunal claim – as personal liability can arise for those who are found to have victimised a whistleblower. This is another reason to take complaints seriously and deal with them appropriately. Senior individuals may need to take their own legal advice in such a claim.

Remember that whistleblowing complaints can come from different parts of the organisation, including from Trustees, and Chief Executive Officers (for example this might arise there has been a breakdown in senior working relationships).

Our Top Tips

Remember, there is no upper limit on the amount of compensation that might be awarded in unfair dismissal or detriment cases under whistleblowing law. It is crucial that a charity’s board has immediate access to good quality, unambiguous legal advice. This advice needs to be confidential; non-lawyers’ advice can potentially be accessed by the employee within litigation as it does not attract legal privilege.

Charities should:

  1. Take advice, at an early stage, to ensure you deal with all complaints effectively, and minimise the risk of a claim
  2. Review your Whistleblowing Policy regularly and ensure it is fit for purpose
  3. Train managers and trustees to ensure awareness of what could amount to a protected disclosure, and your policies on how to deal with them.
  4. If you receive a complaint, agree on a strategy and direction so that tactics are decided from the earliest point and instigate an investigation at the outset
  5. Ensure your charity’s governance permits it flexibility to act decisively


For further information do refer to our FAQs and video on whistleblowing.