Interpreting enterprise agreements; the principles

What are the legal principles which apply when interpreting an enterprise agreement? Here is an answer.

“Principles of Construction

The parties agree that the principles to be applied in determining the proper construction of cl.16.7 of the Enterprise Agreement are well settled.  The parties referred me to Skene v Workpac Pty Ltd (2018) 280 IR 191 where the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia summarised the principles at [197] as follows:

The starting point for interpretation of an enterprise agreement is the ordinary meaning of the words, read as a whole and in context: City of Wanneroo v Holmes [1989] FCA 369; (1989) 30 IR 362 at 378 (French J). The interpretation “… turns on the language of the particular agreement, understood in the light of its industrial context and purpose …”: Amcor Limited v Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union [2005] HCA 10; (2005) 222 CLR 241 at [2] (Gleeson CJ and McHugh J). The words are not to be interpreted in a vacuum divorced from industrial realities (Holmes at 378); rather, industrial agreements are made for various industries in the light of the customs and working conditions of each, and they are frequently couched in terms intelligible to the parties but without the careful attention to form and draftsmanship that one expects to find in an Act of Parliament (Holmes at 378–9, citing Geo A Bond & Co Ltd (in liq) v McKenzie [1929] AR(NSW) 498 at 503 (Street J)). To similar effect, it has been said that the framers of such documents were likely of a “practical bent of mind” and may well have been more concerned with expressing an intention in a way likely to be understood in the relevant industry rather than with legal niceties and jargon, so that a purposive approach to interpretation is appropriate and a narrow or pedantic approach is misplaced: see Kucks v CSR Limited (1996) 66 IR 182 at 184 (Madgwick J); Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association v Woolworths SA Pty Ltd [2011] FCAFC 67 at [16] (Marshall, Tracey and Flick JJ); Amcor at [96] (Kirby J).

In Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union v Hay Point Services Pty Ltd (2018) 282 IR 228 at [9], the Full Court of the Federal Court pointed out that:

The reference there made to the observations of Kirby J at [96] of Amcor is a reference to his Honour’s remarks that the construction to be given to a clause in an industrial instrument “should not be a strict one but one that contributes to a sensible industrial outcome such as should be attributed to the parties who negotiated and executed the Agreement”.

In Short v FW Hercus Pty Ltd (1993) 40 FCR 511 at 518 per Burchett J (with Drummond J agreeing) relevantly observed:

The context of an expression may thus be much more than the words that are its immediate neighbours. Context may extend to the entire document of which it is a part, or to other documents with which there is an association. Context may also include, in some cases, ideas that gave rise to an expression in a document from which it has been taken. When the expression was transplanted, it may have brought with it some of the soil in which it once grew, retaining a special strength and colour in its new environment. There is no inherent necessity to read it as uprooted and stripped of every trace of its significance, former significance, standing bare in alien ground. True, sometimes it does stand as if alone. But that should not be just assumed, in the case of an expression with a known source, without looking at its creation, understanding its original meaning, and then seeing how it is now used. Very frequently, perhaps most often, the immediate context is the clearest guide, but the court should not deny itself all other guidance in those cases where it can be seen that more is needed. In literature, Milton and Joyce could not be read in ignorance of the source of their language, nor should a legal document, including an award, be so read.

Consistent with the authorities the consideration of cl.16.7, should include the text of the clause, the agreement as a whole, the legislative framework and the history of the clause.”