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Employment Law Case Update: Varnish v British Cycling and UK Sport

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In 2006, Ms Varnish was selected for British Cycling’s World Class Programme, where she progressed to the Olympic Academy Programme and subsequently to the Olympic Podium Programme – competing among elite world-class cyclists. Between 2006 and 2016, Ms Varnish entered into various agreements with British Cycling. These agreements governed the relationship between the parties.

Ms Varnish was dropped by British Cycling in 2016 and brought claims for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination, after being subjected to sexist comments by her former coach. British Cycling argued that the only reason she was dropped from the squad was due to her performance. Ms Varnish believed that the relationship between her and British Cycling was that of an employee and employer, so she should therefore be entitled to basic employment rights.

Ms Varnish argued that the agreements she had entered into with British Cycling posed significant control on her, similar to that of an employee. Ms Varnish relied on examples such as coaches listening at her bedroom door when staying at hotels, making her train over a Christmas period, and an obligation on her to wear Team GB kit when performing and training. However, Ms Varnish was not paid by British Cycling. Instead, she secured funding under an Athlete Performance Award with UK Sport, receiving payments under the award scheme from 2007-2016.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) ruled that whilst British Cycling had imposed a significant amount of control on Ms Varnish, this was the only point that supported an employment relationship. It also held that UK sport, which funded her, had little or no control.

The ET clarified that there was no mutuality of obligation between Ms Varnish and British Cycling and/or UK Sport, ruling that Ms Varnish’s relationship with UK Sport was similar to that of a university providing a student with a grant.

UK Sport commented on the judgement, stating that it had been given confidence in the way relationships between athletes, governing bodies and itself are managed, but added it will "reflect on the concerns that were raised through this case".

With the recent cases involving Addison Lee and Uber drivers - which ruled that both were classed as workers - the decision in this case may be seen as a rare win for employers. This case highlights the importance of taking a holistic approach when dealing with those who are self employed; and that the ET will look towards the individual facts of each case, when determining worker status.

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.