|Refer to our article Change in approach for fixed term contract unfair dismissal claims for further details about this decision.|
 Having regard to these propositions and the court decisions to which we have earlier referred, we consider that s 386(1)(a) should be interpreted and applied as follows:
- The analysis of whether there has been a termination at the initiative of the employer for the purpose of s 386(1)(a) is to be conducted by reference to termination of the employment relationship, not by reference to the termination of the contract of employment operative immediately before the cessation of the employment. This distinction is important in the case of an employment relationship made up of a sequence of time-limited contracts of employment, where the termination has occurred at the end of the term of the last of those contracts. In that situation, the analysis may, depending on the facts, require consideration of the circumstances of the entire employment relationship, not merely the terms of the final employment contract.
- As stated in Mohazab, the expression “termination at the initiative of the employer” is a reference to a termination that is brought about by an employer and which is not agreed to by the employee. In circumstances where the employment relationship is not left voluntarily by the employee, the focus of the inquiry is whether an action on the part of the employer was the principal contributing factor which results, directly or consequentially, in the termination of the employment.
- In Mahony v White the Full Court stated that a termination of employment may be done at the initiative of the employer even though it was not done by the employer. In circumstances where the parties to a time-limited contract have agreed that their contract will expire on a specified date but have not agreed on the termination of their employment relationship, it may be the case that the termination of employment is effected by the expiry of the contract, but that does not exclude the possibility that the termination of employment relationship occurred at the initiative of the employer – that is, as a result of some decision or act on the part of the employer that brought about that outcome.
- Where the terms of an operative time-limited contract reflect a genuine agreement on the part of the employer and employee that the employment relationship will not continue after a specified date and the employment relationship comes to an end on the specified date, then, absent a vitiating or other factor of the type to which we refer in (5) below, the employment relationship will have been terminated by reason of the agreement between the parties and there will be no termination at the initiative of the employer. Further, in those circumstances a decision by the employer not to offer any further contract of employment will not be relevant to the question of whether there was a termination of employment at the initiative of the employment. The decision not to offer further employment is separate and distinct from the earlier agreement between the parties to end the employment relationship on a particular date (Griffin/Fisher). However if the time-limited contract does not in truth represent an agreement that the employment relationship will end at a particular time (as, for example, in D’Lima), the decision not to offer a further contract will be one of the factual matters to be considered in determining whether an action on the part of the employer was the principal contributing factor which results, directly or consequentially, in the termination of the employment.
- In some cases it will be necessary to go further than just examining the terms of any contract in which the parties have ostensibly agreed to terminate the employment relationship at a particular time. It is not necessary or appropriate that we attempt to identify exhaustively all relevant matters, but the authorities to which we have earlier referred indicate that the following are likely to be relevant and may in some cases be determinative:(a) The time-limited contract itself may be vitiated by one of the recognised categories by which the law excuses parties from performance of a contract. The categories potentially relevant in an employment context include the following:
- the employee entered into the contract as a result of misrepresentation or misleading conduct by the employer;
- the employee entered into the contract as a result of a serious mistake about its contents or subject matter;
- there has been unconscionable conduct associated with the making of the contract, which may relevantly include that the employer took advantage of a disability affecting the employee such as lack of education, lack of information, lack of independent advice or illiteracy;
- the employment contract was entered into by the employee under duress or coercion (which might include the types of coercion prohibited in ss 343(1)(a), 348 and 355) resulting from illegitimate pressure on the part of the employer;
- the employee lacked the legal capacity to make the contract; or
- the contract was a sham in the sense that it was not intended by the parties to give legal effect to its apparent terms or in the broader sense dealt with in Pt 3-1 Div 6 of the FW Act.
If any of the above applies there will be no legally effective time-limit on the employment (Fisher).
(b) The time-limited employment contract may be illegal or contrary to public policy (for example, it contains relevantly objectionable terms as defined in s 12 of the FW Act or has the purpose of frustrating the policy or operation of the FW Act or preventing access to the Commission’s unfair dismissal jurisdiction 82). Whether the employment was constituted by successive short term contracts or the use of time-limited contracts was appropriate in the relevant field of employment may be some of the considerations relevant to an examination of the employer’s purpose for entering into such contracts (D’Lima/Fisher).
(c) The contract may have been varied, replaced or abandoned by way of a separate agreement, whether in writing and/or orally, such that its ostensible time limit no longer applies (Fisher).
(d) The employment contract may not be limited to the terms of a written document and may, for example, be one of a series of standard-form contracts which operated for administrative convenience and did not represent the reality or the totality of the terms of the employment relationship (Fisher/D’Lima).
(e) During the term of the employment relationship the employer may have engaged in conduct or made representations (for example, representing to the employee that the employment will continue subject to conduct and performance notwithstanding a contractual time limit on the employment) which provide a proper legal foundation to prevent the employer from relying upon the terms of the contract as the means by which the employment relationship has been terminated (Fisher).
(f) The terms of the contract time-limiting the employment may be inconsistent with the terms of an award or enterprise agreement given effect by the FW Act which prohibit or regulate fixed-term employment, in which case the terms of the award or agreement will prevail over the contract (Fisher).