Victory for Casual and Part-time Workers as Appeal Fails

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Blumers Lawyers had their success in the case “Coles Supermarkets versus Harris” upheld in the ACT Supreme Court on December 16, 2013 after Justice Burns dismissed Coles’ appeal.

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courts will not readily interpret a statute such that any word, phrase or provision is rendered redundant

Blumers Personal Injury Lawyers Canberra had their success in the case “Coles Supermarkets versus Harris” upheld in the ACT Supreme Court on December 16, 2013 after Justice Burns dismissed Coles’ appeal. (Coles Supermarkets Australia Pty Ltd v Nicole Marie Harris [2013] Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court ACTSC 255 - 16 December 2013)
See court record HERE

According to court documents the appeal contended that Dr Bernadette Boss, the Magistrate hearing the original case erred under the Workers Compensation Act of 1951 (ACT) in awarding compensation based on the weekly minimum wage rather than on an hourly rate. The worker, Nicole Marie Harris, worked part time.

The facts of Ms Harris’ injuries were not disputed in the ACT Magistrate’s Court. According to court documents, In 2009 Ms Harris was injured working part time at Coles in Tuggeranong ACT and it was agreed that she was entitled to Worker’s Compensation. Following her injury, Ms Harris was classified as totally incapacitated for work. The dispute was about the amount of compensation payable.

According to court documents Coles based its appeal on changes made to the Worker Compensation Act in 2001 (effective July 2002), which were designed to encourage “early and durable return to work outcomes”. Coles asserted that providing compensation at a rate greater than “usual hours” was counterproductive to this aim. According to court documents after 26 weeks of incapacity Coles argued amendments to the Act allowed for a “step down” in compensation to 65% of pre-injury weekly earnings or the “statutory floor” (minimum wage) whichever was greater. This, according to Coles, was important as an incentive for workers’ rehabilitation and return to work. Coles argued that paying the worker an amount based on 38 hours per week had the effect of skewing the benefits within the Workers Compensation Act towards part-time workers. According to Coles the Act does not provide a floor level for part-time workers.

While Coles relied on an original explanatory memorandum to the 2001 amendments to the Workers Compensation Act, Ms Harris, through Blumers Lawyers, argued this was only one of three memoranda and was published prior to the Bill being amended, and therefore should have limited weight, According to court documents

According to court documents, It was further argued that the “step-down” clause already existed prior to the Act’s amendment, and the substantive change in the Act in 2001 was to provide protection for low paid workers with the introduction of a statutory floor. It was therefore contended that providing protection based on a full weekly benefit for low paid workers was the intention of the Act, rather than an anomaly.

According to court documents Justice Burns agreed that the amendments to the Workers Compensation Act were intended to encourage workers to return to work, but this was balanced with the need to provide entitlement for fair compensation to injured workers. However, he looked to the text of the Act rather than the explanatory memoranda to make this determination.

According to court documents the judge found that under the Coles’ argument, if the statutory floor were to be interpreted as an hourly rate multiplied by the usual number of hours worked pre-injury, the Act would have “no work to do”. This would occur because the statutory floor would vary according to hours worked, and would therefore always either equal the statutory floor where the minimum hourly rate was applied, or exceed it if a higher rate was used. This would make the statement “whichever is greater” redundant.

According to court documents it was stated that It is a long recognised principle that “courts will not readily interpret a statute such that any word, phrase or provision is rendered redundant”. So in the case where there are two possible interpretations, one where part of the statute becomes superfluous and one that does not, the latter will be generally preferred.

Further the interpretation urged by Coles requires that words be read into the definition of “statutory floor” in the Act, which would convert the statutory floor from a weekly to an hourly rate which is not comparing like with like.
According to court documents a third reason Justice Burns rejected the appellant’s interpretation is that the legislation refers only to a weekly sum. The legislature chose not to make separate provision for part-time workers.

According to court documents the judge also found that applying Coles’ interpretation of the Workers Compensation Act would bring about a fundamental change, to the detriment of part-time workers. He concluded, “this was clearly not the intention of the legislature in making the 2001 amendments”.

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Stephen Reeks
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