The management of long term sickness absence cases can be difficult.  This is particularly so if an employee is reluctant to provide information about his condition and prognosis. 

This is often amplified by the fact that in keeping with the Australian Medical Association guidelines, many medical certificates only state that the employee is unfit to work for a given period. When subsequent medical certificates are provided in the same form it becomes very difficult for an employer to deduce anything useful regarding the expected overall duration of the absence and whether indeed the employee will ever be able to return to work at all. So can an employer demand further medical information?

In Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) v Qantas Airways Limited (2014) the Federal Court recently ruled that employers may have an implied right to require employees to provide more detailed medical reports.

The AIPA brought a claim against Qantas on behalf of a pilot who had been absent for work for over six months. During his absence, the pilot submitted periodic medical certificates to Qantas, each indicating that he was suffering from clinical depression and initially stating that he would be unfit for work for three months. This was subsequently extended. In response, Qantas requested that the pilot provide a written medical report regarding:

  • his medical prognosis;
  • the expected duration of his absence; and
  • the likelihood of his being able to perform the requirements of his role as and when he returned. 

The AIPA objected to the request, claiming that the pilot had complied with the requirements under the Enterprise Agreement by producing medical certificates as evidence of his then current unfitness for duty. The AIPA asserted that there was no lawful basis for Qantas to request further evidence.

In response, Qantas advised the pilot that if he failed to provide the information requested he could face disciplinary action. 

The AIPA claimed that, in making that threat, Qantas had taken adverse action against the pilot for his exercising a workplace right to take sick leave on the submission of certificates evidencing his unfitness for duty at that time, which the certificates he had submitted clearly did.

The Federal Court disagreed and found that Qantas’ request for further information had not interfered with the pilot’s rights under the applicable Enterprise Agreement – Qantas had never challenged his entitlement to take sick leave. The Court considered that it would be ‘quite unrealistic’ to expect Qantas to have no right or ability to require a sick employee to provide it with the sort of information it had requested.

After all, the information provided to Qantas in the medical certificate told Qantas nothing about how it should plan for the pilot’s absence or his return to work beyond the period stated in the medical certificates, which could well be (and had been) extended or renewed. The information requested was reasonably necessary to allow Qantas to comply with its obligations regarding rostering and also its duties to ensure the health and safety of the pilot and his colleagues (both on his return to work and during his absence). It was therefore necessary to imply a right within the employment contract for Qantas to require the employee to provide further medical information.