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Internships – considerations for organisations

Legal Status

Employee, worker, volunteer or something else? The legal status of an intern may not be clear-cut. However, this is an important consideration for any organisation and should be considered at the outset as it determines the extent of any statutory employment rights an individual may have.

To establish any form of protection as an employee or worker the individual must have some form of contract with the organisation. Despite an organisation intending to engage a person on a totally voluntary basis, it can be possible to unintentionally enter into a contract of employment or services. For example, in the case of Murray v Newham Citizens Advice Bureau, Mr Murray had a volunteer agreement with Newham Citizens Advice Bureau but brought a claim for disability discrimination. The EAT held that the volunteer agreement in which Mr Murray agreed to volunteer at specific times and for a minimum period, and for the CAB to repay his expenses and provide him with basic training, amounted to a binding contract and he was found to have been employed under a contract of employment.

If an organisation is looking to offer an unpaid internship on a voluntary basis as a learning experience the suggestions below may help to avoid any legally binding contract:

  • Avoid making payments to interns that could be taken as wages. Payments of expenses should be clearly identified as such and reimbursed against receipts. Payments that go beyond actual expenses may be regarded as consideration for services provided or income and suggest that the intern is in fact a worker or employee. For example, if an intern walks to work but is still paid travel expenses, this can be construed as a financial reward.
  • Remove benefits that could be seen as consideration. For example, the promise of paid work at the end of an internship can be seen as a reward for work undertaken.
  • Give the intern the ability to refuse tasks and choose when to work. The more flexibility an individual has will point away from the existence of a binding contract.
  • Avoid using language that makes the arrangement sound contractual and adopt flexible language instead. For example, “you will have no fixed hours but we hope you will be able to attend for…”


By simply giving the title ‘unpaid intern’ will not prevent an individual from being entitled to the National Minimum Wage (“NMW”) or National Living Wage (“NLW”) if it is more than just a learning experience and they are in reality carrying out work to benefit the organisation.

If a person is genuinely just “work-shadowing” which does not involve any work by the individual, then they will not qualify for NMW or NLW. However, if they are required to carry out specific tasks or a certain amount of work then this may indicate worker status.

The government suggests that between 2 and 4 weeks is an appropriate period for an unpaid internship. For anything longer than 4 weeks, and depending on the nature of the internship, organisations should consider using fixed term contracts.

Formal agreements

There is no requirement to enter into a formal agreement but it may help to clarify both parties’ expectations. The appropriate form of agreement for an internship will vary depending on the status of the individual and the nature of the internship. For interns who are engaged on a voluntary basis and who fall outside of the NMW legislation, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills suggests the following to be covered:

  • Placement dates
  • Suggested hours of attendance
  • Location
  • Supervisor’s name
  • Specific learning objectives
  • Work related expenses
  • Health and safety
  • Insurance
  • Confidentiality

If you would like advice on internships, please feel free to email us or contact us on 0191 282 2880 for a no obligation chat.


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