Constructing the ratio of CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting

I opened a book today – one that I’ve not needed to look at since 1973.  In fact, I don’t think I could have looked at it too much, even back then. The pages were in pretty good condition…

The book is Maher, Waller & Derham (1971) Cases and Materials on the Legal Process (2 ed).  I opened it because I needed to refresh my memory (now fading) about the relationship between the binding rule of a case (its “ratio decidendi”) and its material facts. I wanted to do that because several aspects of the High Court’s recent decision in CFMMEU v Contracting Personnel were causing some panic in the labour hire industry, and I wanted to see if it was justified.

The aspects that were proving especially troublesome were those passages in the judgments that seemed to be suggesting that, as a matter of binding principle, the mere making of a promise to work through a labour hire firm might be enough to make a person that firm’s employee – if the promise were used by the labour hire firm in running its business, as of course it is. 

Such a principle, if indeed it were the correct principle to extract from the case, seemed to conflate the “control test” with the “integration” or “organizational test”, applying selected elements of the “multi-factorial test” (though only to the terms of the written contract – mostly), whilst viewing all through the “prism” of the “own business test”, or something not entirely unlike it.

Heaven help us if we’re teaching employment law this semester!

But there, on pages 113-114 of my cherished copy of Maher, Waller & Derham, purchased at the exorbitant price of $8.50, was what I was looking for – a lucid but barely remembered account of the relationship between the binding rule of a case and its facts, showing how the material facts of Donoghue v Stevenson (the famed “snail-in-the-ginger-beer-case”) could be divided into fact families, the members of which could be “stated at various levels of generality”.

Applying the method recommended by those esteemed authors, I was able to discern four families of important facts that might go some way towards explaining what the High Court really said, and which might allay some of the alarm currently circulating through the labour hire industry.   

I’ll set them out, and then see if I can combine them into a workable statement of principle.

  1. Facts as to the worker’s identity & capacity: The worker was an individual, not in his own business.
  2. Facts as to the contract: The contract with the labour hire firm was wholly in writing.
  3. Facts as to preservation of independence: the worker’s promise to perform work for the labour hire firm’s clients as directed was not subject to a sufficient reservation of independence – eg. as to what work he would do or how he would do it.
  4. Facts as to the labour hire firm’s control and use of the worker’s promise: The labour hire firm controlled and used the worker’s promise as an asset in its business.

It’s going to be difficult for labour hire firms to avoid #2 and #4.  But #1 and #3 might suggest there is some scope to fashion a different outcome in some cases.

So, here’s a first attempt to extract the principle in CFMMEU v Personnel Contracting:

Where A, being an individual not in business for themselves, makes a promise to B, in a wholly written contract without sufficient reservation of independence, to perform work for C, which promise B controls and uses in its business, then A may be characterized as B’s employee.

Don’t hold me to that. I’ll need time to refine it. In fact, it might not be settled until later courts tell us what the High Court really meant. But might it work?  Might it keep the doors of a few locum agencies and professional on-hire firms open a bit longer?

Here’s hoping a court that needs to consider the issue in a different occupational context might think so!

Andrew C. Wood

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