The ‘Litigious’ Lottery: Costs Orders in Employment Litigation

Costs, it might be said, are an unsexy topic. Amidst the cut and thrust of high stakes litigation, questions of costs can be easily overlooked. Yet that does not diminish their importance. Many a courtroom victory has been soured by an unfavourable costs order.

In the employment context, costs take on additional importance. The financial stakes in employment disputes are often lower than in commercial litigation, such that costs can quickly surpass any damages awarded. Almost all employment grievances involve at least one individual party, who ordinarily will be far less able to absorb an adverse costs order than a corporate litigator. The diverse variety of costs regimes governing workplace-related litigation, which in turn often have complex and uncertain exceptions, only amplifies the necessity for employment lawyers to be attuned to the law in this area.

The following article intends to provide practitioners with an accessible guide to costs in employment disputes. It will begin by considering the costs protections offered by the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth), before identifying other prominent employment related claims which lack beneficial costs regimes. It then concludes by highlighting an important yet often overlooked issue — the application of inconsistent costs regimes to litigation where multiple causes of actions are pleaded.

Fair Work Act

The general position in disputes under the Fair Work Act, which account for the bulk of employment litigation, is that parties bear their own costs. Thus, in unfair dismissal and general protection claims, among others, the costs result is the same — win, lose or draw. This default position gives effect to a desirable policy objective: encouraging the resolution of employment disputes in a cheap and efficient manner. When neither party can be awarded costs, there is — in most circumstances — a common interest in avoiding protracted litigation. Although there are nuances to the costs treatment of different sections of the Fair Work Act, and slight deviations depending on the chosen forum (whether the Fair Work Commission or a court exercising federal jurisdiction), generally the exceptions to this no costs principle are limited to three. Read More.

Written by John Wilson, Director, Employment & Workplace Relations, and Kieran Pender, Law Clerk.

First published in Ethos: Journal of the ACT Law Society.