Decision sets benchmark for fair play

By KEVIN TAYLOR

A car groomer who lost his job after his bosses concealed a redundancy assessment from him has won a landmark court case under the Government's new industrial relations law.

Michael Baguley, aged 37, was made redundant from Newmarket car dealership Coutts Cars at the end of October.

He has now won more than $15,000 compensation in a case which lawyers say sets a new benchmark for what constitutes fair and reasonable behavi%our by an employer.

%In a 25-page decision, Chief Employment Court Judge Tom Goddard and judges Barrie Travis and Coral Shaw awarded Mr Baguley $10,000 compensation for unjustified dismissal and $5750 for loss of wages.

His lawyer, Garry Pollak, said the decision sent the message that if an employer was going to make anyone redundant he or she had to show good faith.

"The court really is giving effect to what Parliament is trying to say - the parties have to deal with each other in good faith."

He said the decision, the first made by the court under the new Employment Relations Act, was common sense and most employers would have no problem with it.

In Mr Baguley's case only one meeting was held with Coutts Cars when it decided to halve the number of car groomers last year.

At that September 29 meeting, general manager Paul Trenberth behaved in a threatening, aggressive and intimidating manner, the judges said.

Mr Trenberth showed an aggressive attitude when Mr Baguley's lawyer, Michele Ryan, asked about redundancy criteria.

During subsequent mediation, Mr Baguley discovered an assessment had been done on him before the September 29 meeting.

The judges said the company's actions fell way short of the required standards of fair dealing, and amounted to "deceptive conduct in pretending that the assessment lay in the future."

Ms Ryan had become "acutely aware" at the September 29 meeting of being in a strange office with three strange men, one of whom was yelling at her.

"She concluded that, if she continued to assert her client's right to be advised of the selection criteria, she would be thrown out of the meeting," the judges said.

Mr Baguley urged workers concerned about their employment to seek help from a lawyer, union or the Labour Department.

He was thrilled about winning and may use the money - more than half his annual wage for the car-grooming job - to train for his pilot's licence.

Mr Trenberth said he had not read the decision and could not comment. His lawyers could not be contacted.

Employers Federation chief executive Anne Knowles said the case showed the lack of certainty employers faced under the new law.

She said there was now an increased requirement on employers to act fairly and reasonably because of the law's emphasis on good faith.

"But there is no clear-cut definition of what is fair and reasonable in a redundancy situation," she said.

"The focus has changed from that which was agreed between the employer and employee as reflected in the written contract, to a subjective interpretation of what might or might not be fair."

Auckland employment lawyer Simon Mitchell, who works mainly with unions, said the decision was a landmark case which ensured employers treat staff in a more humane way over redundancy.

He said that before the new law was passed employers had claimed it would be the "end of the world" and would prohibit them from making anyone redundant.

But that fear had proved unfounded.

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