High Court upholds block on federal arbitration

Cases

High Court upholds block on federal arbitration

The question before the High Court was whether a provision in the Workplace Relations Act 1996 prevented the AIRC from arbitrating on a partly heard matter.

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The question before the High Court was whether a provision in the Workplace Relations Act 1996 prevented the AIRC from arbitrating on a partly heard matter. This matter was in issue before the Workplace Relations Act commenced operating (in 1997) and the unions argued that it should go to conclusion before the AIRC. The new provision in the Act required such matters to be transferred to the relevant State tribunal. The High Court held that although the matter had started before the Act commenced it was still subject to the new Act and so it could not be arbitrated by the AIRC.

The appeal from the Full Federal Court to the High Court involved complex issues of statutory interpretation. The statutory amendment obliged the commission to cease dealing with industrial disputes if satisfied that a State award or employment agreement governed the wages and conditions of employment in issue, unless satisfied that ceasing would not be in the public interest.

The effect on pending proceedings was in issue.

Appeals allowed

Justice Gleeson agreed with the joint judgment of Gaudron, McHugh, Gummow and Hayne JJ. Justice Kirby, in a separate judgment, agreed that the appeals should be upheld.

The joint judgment noted:

'Although it received little attention in the Federal Court, the text of s 111AAA [new section] itself indicates a contrary intention. The expression "must cease dealing with" assumes the existence of pending proceedings. It postulates the prior continuation of those proceedings, to which the provision then attaches, requiring, in terms, that those proceedings cease. One can only "cease dealing with" a matter if one is already dealing with it. This construction, consistent with the natural meaning of the words used in s 111AAA(1), is reinforced by s 111AAA(4). That sub-section relevantly provides that the definition of "cease dealing", in relation to an industrial dispute, includes "to refrain from further hearing or from determining the industrial dispute or part of the industrial dispute" (emphasis added).'

Each appeal was allowed. The orders of the full court of the Federal Court given on 20 November 2000 were set aside.

See: Attorney-General (Q) v Australian Industrial Relations Commission; Minister for Employment [2002] HCA 42 (3 October 2002) - Gaudron, McHugh, Gummow, Kirby, Hayne and Callinan JJ.

 
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