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  • Crown Lease

    Crown Lease in the ACT: What a strange Land it is! Sort of.

    Buying real estate in Canberra – the first thing you will notice is that you don’t actually buy the Land.

    The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and in particular Canberra, offers an almost unrivalled standard of living and lifestyle. Its open landscape City plan facilitates ease (and speed) of travel throughout the Territory and provides  generous access to restaurants, cafes, parklands and the rural hinterland making it one of the most highly rated and liveable  cities in the world. Yet when you look at buying a stake in the ACT, you’ll be confronted with a somewhat different form of “land ownership” compared to that of its neighbours New South Wales  and Victoria, namely leasehold. The ACT’s leasehold system applies to all land in the Territory, other than National Land. Under the leasehold system, all land is owned by the Commonwealth and leased to residents of the ACT, meaning that all commercial, residential, rural and community title land is owned and leased by the Commonwealth and managed by the ACT Government. The terms of this leasing arrangement are set out in what’s called a Crown Lease.

    But the system, in practise, is not so alien. The Crown Lease sets out the terms and conditions for the “owner’s” (the “lessee”) use and occupation of the land, including the right to exclusive use and enjoyment of the land during the term of the Crown Lease. This is not so different to the manner of land use control exercised by state planning authorities, such as a “Council”. The Crown Lease however, dispenses with the often politicised approaches that can occur through “Council approval” processes.

    Before entering into a “Crown lease”, there are some points to consider:

    Length of Crown Lease

    Ordinarily, the term (or length) of a Crown Lease in the ACT will be 99 years. So, although the money you’re coughing up for your house may not buy you the land, you will be buying the right to use the land for the term of the Crown Lease. For most purposes, there is no practical difference between the use of the Crown Lease in the ACT and other title systems in Australia, a Crown Lease can be sold, mortgaged or devised under a will.

    But then what? 

    Although most residential Crown Leases in the ACT are granted for a term of 99 years, the term will not be renewed upon your purchase of the Crown Lease. You will instead acquire the balance of the term of the Lease.

    Upon expiry of the term of the Crown Lease, provided that the land is not required by either the Territory or the Commonwealth and the terms of the Crown Lease provide for a renewal, you may apply for a renewal of the Lease. The first renewals are approaching and there is every political and social reason to expect that these leases will be seamlessly renewed; in fact, many Crown Leases have already been renewed for valuation or sale purposes, as mortgagees often require that you apply for a renewal if the term of the Crown Lease is set to expire with 25 years.

    Development conditions

    When considering buying vacant land in the ACT, you should seek a copy of the Crown Lease as it will contain development conditions and construction timeframes. You can also check the Lease and Development Conditions Register. This will allow you to see building, lease and development conditions prepared for the blocks – the Environment and Planning Directorate must approve these conditions.

    Lease availability

    For new blocks of land, or areas that are still being developed, Crown Leases will not be issued until all necessary services, roads and other civil works around the area are completed. In this instance, you will not become the registered owner of the land until the works are complete and the Crown Lease has been granted and registered at the ACT Land Titles Office.

    As you will not be the registered owner until the Crown Lease has been granted, you may find it difficult to borrow money from a bank or other financial institution, and will not be able to build on the land, until the Crown Lease is granted. In most instances, a specimen (or draft) Crown Lease will be attached to a Contract for Sale to assist you to determine what you are buying and to obtain finance (where necessary).

    Costs

    The rent to be paid by an owner (or lessee) under a residential Crown Lease will be 5 cents if and when demanded” (no demand has yet been made), but some, and typically commercial or rural leases have substantive land rent.  Such leases are subject to payment of an annual land rent charge billed quarterly; however, lessees have the option of paying weekly, fortnightly, monthly or quarterly.

    Selling your leased block?

    As the lessee under a Crown Lease, you can sell your interest in the Crown lease provided you have complied with all building and development conditions contained in the Crown Lease, or you must otherwise obtain consent from the relevant Minister to the sale of the land.

    In short, if you are looking to buy real estate in Canberra under the modern land ownership leasehold system and get a new Crown Lease on life, consider the points above and seek advice as to your rights and obligations. If you’ve finished this article, and are still wondering about the strange land laws of the ACT, please contact the team at BAL Lawyers, as we can answer any questions you might have regarding leases in the ACT.

    First published by Capital Express.

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  • Designated responsibility supervision duties of a law firm

    Designated responsibility: the supervisory duties of a law firm principal

    It is a breach of the Solicitors Conduct Rules to allow an employee to have conduct of a matter without reasonable supervision. This article considers two matters relating to the duty to supervise.

    The Legal Profession (Solicitors) Conduct Rules 2015 contain an express duty for solicitors with designated responsibility for a matter to exercise reasonable supervision over all employees engaged in the provision of legal services for that matter. This is a non-delegable supervisorial responsibility.

    Allowing an employed solicitor, clerk,paralegal, or any other employee to have the conduct of a matter without reasonable supervision breaches that rule and, depending on the seriousness of the failure involved, may constitute unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct, especially in financial matters.

    Supervisors’ duties

    Kelly v Jowett [2009] NSWCA 278 (4 September 2009)

    This case was an appeal from a Family Provision Act matter where an employed solicitor handling the matter in the first instance had, among other things, deliberately and consistently flouted the Court’s orders and directions, and had failed to file affidavit evidence in the matter. The Court of Appeal considered whether there had been a failure by the firm to supervise the employed solicitor.

    The employed solicitor signed a notice of appearance as the solicitor on record. During the conduct of the matter he failed to keep the client appraised of the progress of the matter, failed to comply with undertakings to file affidavit evidence
    within defined times, gave the clients 20 minutes’ notice of a Court ordered mediation (which the client was unable to attend due to the late notice), and had failed to inform the clients of the hearing because he had told them he would be seeking an adjournment. The employed solicitor appeared at the hearing, without the clients, and gave submissions.

    In short, the carriage of the matter was left entirely to the employed solicitor. The partners of the firm did not take any direct role in supervising the employed solicitor’s conduct of the matter. This remained the case even after the partners knew of the employed solicitor’s unreliability and his serial delinquency in complying with the Court’s directions. The partners told him “This file is your mess, clean it up”.

    By the time of the Appeal judgment, the employed solicitor was no longer practising. Other solicitors within the firm described the employed solicitor’s conduct in intra-firm communications as “woeful”.

    Keep Reading.

    First published in Ethos.

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  • HR-Human-Resources-Bully-Harassment

    Bullying and Harassment: The New Black in HR

    Being a HR manager, there will often be times you have to deal with employees not getting along.

    You may be dealing with employees complaining about being bullied, requests to be moved to different office locations, claims of unfair work loads and staff taking long breaks.

    These situations can get out of hand very quickly if not dealt with swiftly.

    To illustrate some of the do’s and don’ts of how to deal with bullying claims at work, watch the case study video below that follows Sarah, Jim and Julia through their tales of bullying. This tale is based on a true story, but for education purposes only, of course.

    The video highlights Sarah’s story as a manager at an accounting firm, and her actions around some of the employees she supervises.

    Jim thinks Sarah is putting too much pressure on him and makes a bullying complaint to the HR Manager.

    Julia makes a complaint to HR that she is being bullied by Sarah her as well, citing that Sarah ‘monitors her breaks’.

    Sarah, in turn makes a complaint about the two employees that have made unsubstantiated bullying accusations against her, she also feels that they have been spreading rumors about her.

    The claims end up in front of the Fair Work Commission, who note that these issues should have been dealt with on a HR level, and not have been allowed to escalate to this point.

    Bullying at work occurs when: a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably (objectively!) Towards a worker or a group of workers at work, and the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

    Take Note: bullying does not include reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner.

    It is important to refer to your office bullying and harassment policy, to make sure you are treating employees fairly and reasonably.

    If you need help dealing with bullying and harassment claims at work, please contact the employment team.

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  • The midwife who breached a mother's confidentiality: lessons for public servants

    The midwife who breached a mother's confidentiality: lessons for public servants

    Public servants must comply carefully with their confidentiality obligations, a recent case highlights.

    An employee, whether in the public or private sector, has obligations of confidentiality to their employer. The extent of these obligations varies significantly, depending on the nature of the job, the employer and the information at issue. The onus of confidentiality has a multitude of sources, arising from legislation, contract and the law of equity: this combination, it has been said, “is an unhappy mixture”.

    Our starting point, as usual, is the federal Public Service Act. The Australian Public Service’s code of conduct imposes a range of requirements with relevance to confidentiality: public servants must “behave honestly and with integrity”, “act with care and diligence”, “comply with any lawful and reasonable direction” and “maintain appropriate confidentiality about dealings that the employee has with any minister or minister’s member of staff”. Similarly, federal government staff must “at all times” comply with the APS values, one of which is that “the APS demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy and acts with integrity, in all that it does”.

    Beyond these legislative obligations, public servants – like ordinary employees – have duties of confidentiality arising from their employment contract. These can be express or implied. The twin implied duties of “loyalty and fidelity” and “confidence” impose requirements on employees not to misuse information gained in the course of their employment. Both duties also have alternative underpinnings in the law of equity, such that the exact shape of these confidentiality obligations is frustratingly nebulous.

    This uncertainty is compounded in the public sector context because of the special nature of such employment, and a lack of judicial clarity as to whether the duties should be altered to reflect that character. As Federal Court Justice Paul Finn explained in 2003, “there is no significant Australian jurisprudence on how the duty is to be adapted to accommodate the distinctive demands of public service employment that result from the ‘special position’ [that] … public servants enjoy … This is not the place to essay the significance that ought be given to the precepts of loyalty, neutrality and impartiality which are hallmarks of a public service … My only comment would be that to consider the duty in a setting such as the present without regard to such precepts would involve a flight from reality.”

    While such high-minded concepts were not at issue in the recent South Australian Industrial Relations Commission case of Kore v chief executive, Department of the Premier and Cabinet, the judgment provides an instructive example of the confidentiality obligations imposed on government employees.

    In Kore, a midwife at a public Adelaide hospital, Erin Kore, sought out information about a newborn baby and then passed these details on to a personal friend, the baby’s father. While the midwife knew the mother and father were no longer in a relationship, she was apparently unaware of a past history of aggressive behaviour on the father’s part. The mother soon drew this breach of patient confidentiality to the hospital’s attention, citing safety concerns for herself and the baby, and the midwife was suspended pending an investigation into alleged breaches of South Australia’s code of Conduct equivalent.

    Kore was later sacked, and brought proceedings claiming the dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable. She argued there were numerous mitigating circumstances: the midwife otherwise had an exemplary record, this was a single isolated incident, she had shown contrition, cooperated and had not acted maliciously. While commission Deputy President Karen Bartel accepted many of these arguments, she ultimately denied Kore’s application: “It is with some regret that I am unable to conclude that the dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable.”

    Three of Bartel’s observations are noteworthy. First, the hospital asserted that Kore had no valid reason for accessing the information from the birth register, despite the fact that reviewing the register was an ordinary part of her role. Bartel wrote: “I do not accept the respondent’s view that the applicant should have skimmed past the entries for Ms H in the birth register … This criticism is not realistic … The issue is not that she became aware of the details, but that she disclosed them”.

    Moreover, Bartel emphasised that the employee’s position will be a highly relevant factor. That Kore had obligations under the code of ethics for midwives in Australia and that maintaining the confidentiality of patient health information was an integral requirement of her role both weighed heavily in Bartel’s decision. “The applicant’s conduct,” Bartel wrote in her concluding remarks, “took place in the context of professional obligations upon her, which emphasise the importance of trust and confidentiality”.

    Finally, consonant with Finn’s comments above, Bartel stressed the importance of context in determining the gravity of a confidentiality breach. She wrote: “The nature of public sector employment carries with it obligations which do not exist in the private sector because of the public accountability requirements of government.”

    Yet the public service’s special nature cuts both ways. Public servants may have greater duties than private sector employees, but these duties are ultimately owed to the Australian people, not a particular department or manager. The necessary consequence is that there will occasionally be situations where disclosure of confidential information is in the public interest, even if – were it to take place in the private sector – it might represent a breach of confidentiality. That was not contended in Kore for obvious reasons, but such cases have arisen previously.

    The law’s response to this conflict is uncertain. Finn once hinted that, in cases where the implied constitutional protection of political communication is invoked, it might not be proper for the federal government to rely on a duty of confidentiality. Elsewhere, it has been suggested that the public interest in the disclosure of “iniquity”, whether criminal, civil or political wrongdoing, “will always outweigh the public interest in the preservation of private and confidential information”.

    APS employees should take due care to abide by their confidentiality duties, particularly given the unsettled legal position. As Kore shows, breaches can happen inadvertently and even when the individual believes themselves to be acting in good faith. However, confidentiality should not silence public servants when the public interest demands otherwise.

    Judicial luminary Anthony Mason deserves the final word. As he explained in the High Court’s 1980 Commonwealth v John Fairfax & Sons Ltd judgment: “It is unacceptable in our democratic society that there should be a restraint on the publication of information relating to government when the only vice of that information is that it enables the public to discuss, review and criticise government action.”

    First published in the Canberra Times.

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  • Why play by the rules? fair is fair, isn’t it?

    Why play by the rules? fair is fair, isn’t it?

    Despite the fact that people care more about the result of the final Saturday in September than the goings-on in Parliament, the AFL does not wield governmental power (though the AFL might wish otherwise). How then did James Hird allege that he was denied procedural fairness when the question of whether he breached the rules was determined? While those proceedings were ultimately discontinued, it raises the question of whether procedural fairness applies to private organisations.

    Historically, procedural fairness has been a common law right that applied only to governmental powers that, when exercised, negatively affected the rights or interests of an individual. Where certain decisions are made, procedural fairness operates so that the decision must be reached in a fair manner.

    More recently, the courts have begun to expand the role of procedural fairness and have applied it to companies and private organisations. The classic example of decisions affecting individuals is where members or employees are suspended or terminated (e.g. for supplying performance enhancing supplements).

    The key procedural fairness principles to keep in mind are:

    • the hearing rule –the organisation must inform the individual of the case against them. It encompasses a right to be heard, giving the person an opportunity to reply to the allegations against them and present their case;
    • the bias rule –the decision-maker must not have a personal interest in the matter or even the appearance of bias. This can sometimes be difficult in the case of smaller = organisations where all the members or employees know each other; and
    • the no evidence rule – all decisions must be based on logically probative evidence.

    The hearing rule has an added benefit, in that it can give the decision maker advance warning of the defence to be made and highlight any weaknesses in their own case.

    So why does procedural fairness apply to private organisations? For government decisions, the duty was implied into legislation, rather than expressly provided for. In much the same way, the duty arises from the rules of the particular organisation being construed on the basis that fair procedures are intended. Express words in the rules can operate to exclude the duty, but if the rules are silent it is likely that procedural fairness will apply.

    It is important to remember that the critical question for procedural fairness is not whether the ultimate decision is fair; it is whether it was reached fairly. The best practice is to assume that procedural fairness will apply to decisions that negatively affect the rights or interests of an individual. You should have proper procedures in place so that decisions of this nature are made in a procedurally fair manner; if you don’t play by the rules, you may end up with a decision that does not stand.

    First published in B2B magazine.

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  • Lewd jokes and explicit images navigating the workplace sexual harassment minefield

    Lewd jokes and explicit images: navigating the workplace sexual harassment minefield

    When can an employee be dismissed for workplace sexual harassment? Public and private sector employers have cause for concern following several recent contradictory tribunal decisions.

    The gravity of workplace sexual harassment changed in Australia in July 2014. While at a societal level it has long been accepted that such conduct cannot be tolerated, the law lagged behind. Suing an employer for its failure to prevent sexual harassment was costly and rarely led to a sufficiently large award of damages to justify the financial and emotional expense.

    That changed three years ago. The Full Court of the Federal Court’s landmark judgment in Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Ltd significantly increased the range of damages available in sexual harassment cases. Compensation in the order of $10,000-$20,000 was suddenly replaced by $100,000 and above, jolting employers into action for fear of costly litigation and significant liability.

    The result, to speak generally, has been a greater responsiveness to sexual harassment complaints, more thorough investigations and harsher sanctions (including termination) for perpetrators. For the most part, this cultural change has been rewarded. Two recent unfair dismissal cases have reasserted that serious sexual harassment warrants dismissal.

    Workplace culture no excuse

    The applicant in Torres v Commissioner of Police was terminated on the grounds that he had engaged in a pattern of lewd behaviour, particularly with junior employees. His indecent conduct included serenading a colleague with a song about anal sex, bragging about his genital piercings, asking a junior employee “do you want to suck my c*ck” and making vulgar comments about female visitors.

    The applicant claimed that this was all “innocent joking”, and not out of place in the particular workplace. He offered: “At work we have a culture, in the police I call you a name and you call me a name, we swear at work and everything and all that they used against me. I do swear at work but so does everybody else”. These comments fell on deaf ears, with the tribunal holding that the dismissal was fair. Neither the fact that he had never received harassment or code of conduct training nor that he was a decorated senior special constable swayed the tribunal.

    In Applicant v Respondent, an airline dismissed a cabin crew supervisor after the applicant showed explicit images of a colleague to other colleagues and made inappropriate sexual comments. The cabin crew supervisor, like the police commissioner, pleaded that his actions were in keeping with the workplace culture. He argued that it was “common for there to be discussions of a sexual nature while at work”. These pleas were ignored, and the Fair Work Commission found that the employee’s dismissal was not harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

    The above two cases are examples of egregious workplace conduct handled appropriately by the employers, and subsequently upheld by workplace tribunals. Read together, they strongly condemn the use of ‘workplace culture’ as an excuse for poor behaviour and support employers taking swift action in the face of blatant sexual harassment.

    An outlier?

    However, another recent Fair Work Commission decision is hard to reconcile with this trend. In Renton v Bendigo Health Care Group, Commissioner Michelle Bissett found that an employer was harsh for dismissing a nurse who had tagged two colleagues in a sexually explicit video on Facebook.

    Indeed, it is difficult to understand how the actions of the airline employee or senior constable differ wildly in crudity from the behaviour of the nurse in this case. The applicant had shared a video of an obese woman in her underwear ‘dropping’ her stomach onto a man’s back. He captioned this video “[Colleague 1] getting slammed by [Colleague 2] at work yesterday”. The nurse also left tissues and ‘blobs’ of white sorbolene cream on the desk of one of the colleagues tagged in the video, to make it appear — so the employer alleged — that the colleague had been masturb*ting.

    The commissioner was initially sympathetic to the hospital, noting that the matter required a “swift and strong response”. Yet given the Facebook incident was a “one-off” and that previous “jokes” along the same theme as the sorbolene cream incident had not given rise to a reprimand, the dismissal was deemed harsh and an order for compensation made.

    Which approach to take?

    How are employers to proceed in the face of such contradictory decisions? Notwithstanding Bendigo Health Care, it would be advisable to err on the side of caution. That case seemingly represents an outlier, rather than the rule.

    APS departments should adopt a two-pronged approach. HR professionals should ensure strict adherence to the procedures and processes created by the relevant policies, which are designed in accordance with the APS Code of Conduct. At the same time, actions taken should be proportionate and those involved must be afforded procedural fairness. While the administrative apparatus that accompanies Code of Conduct investigation in the APS should, in theory, ensure proportionality and procedural fairness, we see too often that this is not the case.

    Sexual harassment is serious issue. Following Richardson, employers — whether public or private — are on notice that such conduct cannot be tolerated, and that the onus is on them to prevent its occurrence in the workplace. Employers must tread carefully when navigating the sexual harassment minefield.

    Written by John Wilson, with the assistance of his colleagues Rebecca Richardson and Kieran Pender.

    First published in The Mandarin.

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