As most people know, it is a complete jurisdictional defence for an employer in an unfair dismissal case to be able to satisfy the requirements that the termination of employment arouse due to a genuine redundancy. One of the critical elements in satisfying whether the termination of employment in those circumstances is a genuine redundancy is a determination of whether or not the employer complied with the consultation provisions of any applicable modern award or enterprise agreement. But this can be difficult as the extract from this unfair dismissal case reveals.
“Ms Webb referred to the case of AMWU v Berri (Berri), 67 in which the Full Bench of the Commission set out a series of principles for construing a single enterprise agreement, as follows:
“ The principles relevant to the task of construing a single enterprise agreement may be summarised as follows:
- The construction of an enterprise agreement, like that of a statute or contract, begins with a consideration of the ordinary meaning of the relevant words. The resolution of a disputed construction of an agreement will turn on the language of the agreement having regard to its context and purpose. Context might appear from:
(i) the text of the agreement viewed as a whole;
(ii) the disputed provision’s place and arrangement in the agreement;
(iii) the legislative context under which the agreement was made and in which it operates.
- The task of interpreting an agreement does not involve rewriting the agreement to achieve what might be regarded as a fair or just outcome. The task is always one of interpreting the agreement produced by parties.
- The common intention of the parties is sought to be identified objectively, that is by reference to that which a reasonable person would understand by the language the parties have used to express their agreement, without regard to the subjective intentions or expectations of the parties.
- The fact that the instrument being construed is an enterprise agreement made pursuant to Part 2-4 of the FW Act is itself an important contextual consideration. It may be inferred that such agreements are intended to establish binding obligations.
- The FW Act does not speak in terms of the ‘parties’ to enterprise agreements made pursuant to Part 2-4 agreements, rather it refers to the persons and organisations who are ‘covered by’ such agreements. Relevantly s.172(2)(a) provides that an employer may make an enterprise agreement ‘with the employees who are employed at the time the agreement is made and who will be covered by the agreement’. Section 182(1) provides that an agreement is ‘made’ if the employees to be covered by the agreement ‘have been asked to approve the agreement and a majority of those employees who cast a valid vote approve the agreement’. This is so because an enterprise agreement is ‘made’ when a majority of the employees asked to approve the agreement cast a valid vote to approve the agreement.
- Enterprise agreements are not instruments to which the Acts Interpretation Act 1901(Cth) applies, however the modes of textual analysis developed in the general law may assist in the interpretation of enterprise agreements. An overly technical approach to interpretation should be avoided and consequently some general principles of statutory construction may have less force in the context of construing an enterprise agreement.’
- In construing an enterprise agreement it is first necessary to determine whether an agreement has a plain meaning or it is ambiguous or susceptible of more than one meaning.
- Regard may be had to evidence of surrounding circumstances to assist in determining whether an ambiguity exists.
- If the agreement has a plain meaning, evidence of the surrounding circumstances will not be admitted to contradict the plain language of the agreement.
- If the language of the agreement is ambiguous or susceptible of more than one meaning then evidence of the surrounding circumstance will be admissible to aide the interpretation of the agreement.
- The admissibility of evidence of the surrounding circumstances is limited to evidence tending to establish objective background facts which were known to both parties which inform and the subject matter of the agreement.
- Evidence of such objective facts is to be distinguished from evidence of the subjective intentions of the parties, such as statements and actions of the parties which are reflective of their actual intentions and expectations. Evidence of objective background facts will include:
(i) evidence of prior negotiations to the extent that the negotiations tend to establish objective background facts known to all parties and the subject matter of the agreement;
(ii) notorious facts of which knowledge is to be presumed; and
(iii) evidence of matters in common contemplation and constituting a common assumption.
- The diversity of interests involved in the negotiation and making of enterprise agreements (see point 4 above) warrants the adoption of a cautious approach to the admission and reliance upon the evidence of prior negotiations and the positions advanced during the negotiation process. Evidence as to what the employees covered by the agreement were told (either during the course of the negotiations or pursuant to s.180(5) of the FW Act) may be of more assistance than evidence of the bargaining positions taken by the employer or a bargaining representative during the negotiation of the agreement.
- Admissible extrinsic material may be used to aid the interpretation of a provision in an enterprise agreement with a disputed meaning, but it cannot be used to disregard or rewrite the provision in order to give effect to an externally derived conception of what the parties’ intention or purpose was.
- In the industrial context it has been accepted that, in some circumstances, subsequent conduct may be relevant to the interpretation of an industrial instrument. But such post-agreement conduct must be such as to show that there has been a meeting of minds, a consensus. Post-agreement conduct which amounts to little more than the absence of a complaint or common inadvertence is insufficient to establish a common understanding.”
Webb v Sodexo Remote Sites Australia Pty Ltd 92019) FWC 1585 delivered 26 March 2019 per Hunt C