Law Firms Can Sack Lawyers who Criticise Clients

by Sonia Hickey

A Federal Court has ruled that a law firm was entitled to sack an employee who criticised government clients, by advocating for the rights of veterans who had suffered sexual and physical abuse.

The lawyer, Gary Rumble, was dismissed in 2017 after “irritating” his boss by speaking publicly about the abuse suffered by Australian Army, Navy and Airforce recruits over a period of several decades.

Background to the dismissal

Mr Rumble led a government-commissioned review in 2011-12 into sexual and physical abuse in the Defence Force. He says prior to taking on the job, he had no particular interest in the subject, but that the ’horrors’ he and his colleagues uncovered while undertaking the review turned him into a passionate advocate for the victims who he believed were not being adequately looked after by the government.

In the years following the review was published, Mr Rumble has written to ministers, spoken repeatedly in the media and testified to Parliamentary committees in his quest for better treatment for victims, despite his legal bosses’ repeated attempts to quieten him.

In 2014, his employer implemented a policy “requiring its partners and staff not to engage in criticisms of the firm’s clients without the permission of the senior managing partner.”

Mr Rumble ignored this directive, and continued his crusade. In an article published in mainstream media in 2016, Dr Rumble said boys as young as 13 had suffered “degrading sexual, physical and psychological abuse … in the Army, Navy and Air Force from the 1940s until at least the 1980s”. Dr Rumble also wrote that it was a “continuing disgrace that some of these victims are not receiving veterans’ benefits to which they are entitled.”

The piece further angered his employer and Mr Rumble was turned away from the staff Christmas party. His employment was terminated some weeks later, just days after he was recognised as Canberra’s “Public Law Lawyer of the Year”.

What about free of speech?

The concept of individual freedom of speech versus what’s acceptable by an employer has hit headlines in Australia recently with a number of cases making their way through the courts. And over the past several years, the Federal Government has introduced a range of laws, including the Defence Trade controls Act, which makes it a criminal offence to speak out about what does on behind the closed walls of detention centres.

Similarly, the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 creates a series of laws that penalise Commonwealth officers who leak classified information, as well as criminalises all the steps that go into reporting such information to the public.

Can I be fired for speaking my mind?

While this is a complex issue, at its core, yes, is entirely possible for anyone to be fired for public comments they make about their employer or the nature of their work and this includes comments made to social media, irrespective of whether those comments were posted on your private page, and in your own time. It is the content of the post that will come under scrutiny, including:

  • the nature of the comments made,
  • the intention for publishing them,
  • the audience,
  • the extent to which an individual or company is identified, and
  • the provisions of any contract of employment and company policy or guidelines.

While Australian law recognises the freedom of information, opinion and expression, the Australian Constitution, does not provide an unfettered right to freedom of speech. The best advice is to take care about what you post online, even if you do so anonymously.

Former government employee, Michaela Banerji, was fired for posting comments under a pseudonym – a twitter handle that was not easily identifiable. Her dismissal was also upheld by the Federal Court, based on the fact she did not adhere to the explicit guidelines of her employer’s social media policy.

Employment lawyers advise of the importance of understanding an employer’s policies with respect to mainstream media or social media. .

Author

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

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