Unfair dismissal and procedural fairness

 

This portion of a recent unfair dismissal decision of the Fair Work Commission deals with the importance of procedural fairness when an employee’s employment is being terminated and is subsequently reviewed by the Commission.

“Procedural fairness

 

[29]    Subsections 387 (b)-(g) are procedural fairness matters to be considered by the Commission in any unfair dismissal case, including when a finding of valid reason is made.

 

[30]    The importance of procedural fairness issues in unfair dismissal cases is highlighted in four authorities on the subject. In Crozier v Palazzo Corporation Pty Limited t/as Noble Storage and Transport (2000) 98 IR 137 (‘Crozier v Palazzo’), a Full Bench of the AIRC said at [73]:

 

‘As a matter of logic procedural fairness would require that an employee be notified of a valid reason for their termination before any decision is taken to terminate their employment in order to provide them with an opportunity to respond to the reason identified. Section 170CG(3)(b) and (c) would have very little (if any) practical effect if it was sufficient to notify employees and give them an opportunity to respond after a decision had been taken to terminate their employment.’

 

[31]    In Wadey v YMCA Canberra [1996] IRCA 568, Moore J made clear that an employer cannot merely pay ‘lip service’ to giving an employee an opportunity to respond to allegations concerning an employee’s conduct. His Honour said:

 

‘In my opinion the obligation imposed on an employer by that section has, for present purposes, two relevant aspects. The first is that the employee must be made aware of allegations concerning the employee’s conduct so as to be able to respond to them. The second is that the employee must be given an opportunity to defend himself or herself. The second aspect, the opportunity to defend, implies an opportunity that might result in the employer deciding not to terminate the employment if the defence is of substance. An employer may simply go through the motions of giving the employee an opportunity to deal with allegations concerning conduct when, in substance, a firm decision to terminate had already been made which would be adhered to irrespective of anything the employee might say in his or her defence. That, in my opinion, does not constitute an opportunity to defend.’

 

[32]    Nevertheless, procedural fairness steps should be applied in a common sense and practical way. In Gibson v Bosmac Pty Ltd (1995) 60 IR 1 (‘Gibson’), Wilcox CJ said at [7]:

 

‘Ordinarily, before being dismissed for reasons related to conduct or performance, an employee must be made aware of the particular matters that are putting his or her job at risk and given an adequate opportunity of defence. However, I also pointed out that the section does not require any particular formality. It is intended to be applied in a practical, commonsense way so as to ensure that the affected employee is treated fairly. Where the employee is aware of the precise nature of the employer’s concern about his or her conduct or performance and has a full opportunity to respond to this concern, this is enough to satisfy the requirements of the section.’

 

[33]    It goes without saying that any issue(s) of procedural unfairness may not be of such significance as to outweigh the substantive reasons for an employee’s dismissal, particularly in cases of misconduct where the proven misconduct is of such gravity as to outweigh any other considerations such as age, length of service, employment record or contrition.

 

[34]    In a decision of the Full Bench, the following principles were enunciated as to sub-ss 387(b) and (c) of the Act. In Bartlett v Ingleburn Bus Services Pty Ltd t/as Interline Bus Services [2020] FWCFB 6429, the Full Bench said at [19]:

 

‘[19] The relevant principles as to the meaning and application of s 387(b) and (c) are well-established. They may be summarised as follows:

 

(1)      Each of the matters specified in s 387, including those in paragraphs (b) and (c), must be taken into account as matters of significance, to the extent that they are relevant to the particular case at hand, and given due weight.

 

(2)      Proper consideration of s 387(b) requires a finding to be made as to whether the applicant has been notified of “that reason” – that is, the reason for dismissal relating to the capacity or conduct of the applicant found to be valid under s 387(a) – prior to the decision to dismiss being made.

 

(3)      Proper consideration of s 387(c) requires a finding to be made as to whether the applicant has been given a real opportunity to respond to the reason for dismissal. As a matter of logic, unless the applicant has been notified of the reason, it is difficult to envisage that it could be found that the applicant has been afforded an opportunity to respond to that reason.

 

(4)      Once findings are made in relation to s 387(b) and (c), they may then be weighed together with the other matters required to be taken into account in order to form a conclusion as to whether the applicant’s dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable. Where it is found that the applicant was not notified of the reasons for dismissal and/or was not given an opportunity to respond, a relevant consideration as to the weight to be assigned to this is whether this meant that the applicant was deprived of the possibility of a different outcome in terms of avoiding his or her dismissal’

 

[35]    There was a complete denial of procedural fairness in the dismissal of the Applicant. “

 

Clyne v Surelinc Services Pty Ltd  [2024] FWC 1685 delivered 4 July 2024 per Cross DP