Federal Court of Australia, Konrad v. Victoria Police & Ors, 6 August 1999, [1999] FCA 988

Role of International Law:
Use of international law as a guide for interpreting domestic law
Type of instruments used:

Ratified treaty;1 Foreign case law2

Action by a police constable for unfair dismissal/ Use of international law as a guide for interpreting domestic law/ Use of international legal instruments and foreign case law as a guide for interpreting the term "employee" enshrined in national legislation

A police constable had brought an action to establish that his dismissal had been unfair. He claimed that his dismissal violated Section 170 DE of the Industrial Relations Act 1988 (Cth) (hereafter “the Act”).

In order to adjudicate this action the Australian Federal Court examined whether Section 170 DE of the Act3 was applicable in that instance, that is to say, whether the term “employee” enshrined in that section covered police officers. The Court referred to the international instrument on which that Act was based, namely ILO Convention No. 158 on Termination of Employment, as well as foreign case law in order to give its decision.

The Court first pointed out that Division 3 of the Act [the division comprising Section 170 DE] had been adopted in order to apply ILO Convention No. 158 and Recommendation No. 166 on Termination of Employment and that consequently it had to be interpreted in conjunction with those instruments:

“Division 3 was enacted to give effect to the ILO Convention No. 158 (1982) and the Recommendation No. 166. When a statute implements a treaty, it is an accepted canon of construction that Parliament intends a provision to have the same effect as the corresponding one in the treaty (…). This effect is expressly enshrined in the Industrial Relations Act by s 170CB which provides that “(a)n expression has the same meaning in this Division as in the Termination of Employment Convention. Accordingly, to determine whether a constable is an “employee” for the purposes of Division 3, it is appropriate, in the first instance, to consider whether, upon the proper construction of the Convention, a constable is an “employed person” to whom the Convention is intended to apply.”4

In order to determine whether a police constable was an employee within the meaning of that Convention, the Court limited its analysis to “the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its objects and purpose”.5 The judges did not in fact rely on any further means of interpretation (preparatory work and/or any explanations of the meaning and scope of this instrument given by the ILO supervisory bodies), since they considered that analysis of the provisions of the Convention allowed them to determine clearly the meaning of the term “employee” as used in that instrument.6

“There can be no doubt that the Convention applies to publicly employed as well as privately employed workers. (…)Turning to the text of the Convention, without recourse to any preparatory material, the language of Article 2(1) is also sufficiently general to include public employees: that is the expression “all employed persons” is apt to include publicly employed persons. This interpretation is confirmed by the context. The context includes the fact that provision is made for the exclusion of categories of workers in respect of whom there may be “special problems” (Article 2(4)) and the fact that the standards of general application (set out in Part II) are equally applicable to public employees and to private employees.”7

The Court then established that “Once it is established that the Convention covers public employees (unless excluded), it follows that it also covers members of the police force as one category of public employees”.8 The Court went on to invoke in particular various instances of American9 and Canadian10 case law in support of its argument that police constables were included in the term “employees” as enshrined in the Act.

Reliance on ILO Convention No. 158 as a means of interpretation enabled the Federal Court to specify that Australian domestic legislation on termination of employment did indeed apply to police officers.

1 ILO Convention on Termination of Employment, 1982 (No. 158).

2 Canada and the United States.

3 Section 170 DE of the Act: “An employer must not terminate an employee’s employment unless there is a valid reason, or valid reasons, connected with the employee’s capacity or conduct or based on the operational requirements of the undertaking, establishment or service.”

4 Judge Finkelstein, paragraph 71 of the decision.

5 Article 31(1) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969.

6 In order to proceed in this manner the judges relied on the principles for interpreting Articles 31 and 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969. See Paragraphs 72 to 77 of the decision.

7 Judge Finkelstein, paragraph 76 of the decision.

8 Judge Finkelstein, paragraph 78 of the decision. It must be pointed out that Judges Ryan and North agreed with Judge Finkelstein’s arguments/observations.

9 See paragraphs 90 to 93 of the decision.

10 See paragraphs 94 to 99 of the decision.

Full text of the decision