On 15 October, the Fair Work Commission released its Annual Report for 2013-14. The Annual Report provides a useful look into some facts and figures on the various types of claim for which the Commission is responsible. However, this year everyone's attention was closely focused upon the numbers arising from the new anti-bullying jurisdiction which commenced on 1 January 2014.
Before the commencement of the new anti-bullying laws, we were all braced for impact, expecting a tidal wave of claims across all sectors of the workforce. Certainly, there was a wave of interest - the Annual Report indicated that in the first six months of 2014, the Commission received more than 100,000 website inquiries and more than 3,500 telephone inquiries related to workplace bullying. However, this interest was not reflected in the number of claims, with the Commission receiving only 343 anti-bullying applications between 1 January and 30 June 2014.
The Annual Report shows that in the January to June 2014 period, more than 270 anti-bullying conferences and hearings occurred following applications made to the Commission. Although, only a minority of those applications resulted in formal decisions, with just 21 anti-bullying cases being resolved by way of a decision, and only one of those resulting in a finding that bullying had occurred and that there was a risk of further occurrence (the other 20 applications were dismissed). Despite the relatively small number of decisions which have arisen in this jurisdiction, employers have received some helpful guidance on the concepts which inform the new laws, particularly with respect to exceptions regarding "reasonable management action."
We would only be speculating, but perhaps the underwhelming applications lodged figures in the new anti-bullying jurisdiction can be attributed to the types of powers afforded to the Commission to address bullying. In particular, the Commission has no power to award compensation even where bullying is substantiated, and is effectively acting as third party umpire for personal issues arising in the workplace. However, this "mediatory" purpose of the Commission in anti-bullying claims does appear to be effective in resolving claims once lodged: 63 of the applications received between January and June 2014 were resolved during the course of proceedings, and a further 20 were withdrawn after a conference or hearing, but before a decision. Whether these application resolution rates translate to resolution of issues in the workplace is yet to be seen.
A full copy of the Annual Report is available online here.