Interpreting the Power to Sack Probationary Employees and the Right to a Fair Dismissal: Commissioner of Police v Eaton

By Brad Jessup

Commissioner of Police v Eaton Case Page

If you are employed on probation then you typically will not have the benefit of unfair dismissal laws. This is because probation periods are usually no more than six months – and parliamentarians have decided that this is a reasonable time within which employers can decide whether or not they should keep an employee on the job. However, some workers have much longer probationary periods. David Eaton, a former police officer from New South Wales, had an indefinite probationary period. That is, there was no end to his probationary period. He would stay on probation until his supervisors promoted him or, as happened in this case, they sacked him.

In the recent High Court case of Commissioner of Police v Eaton [2013] HCA 2 the Court provided some insights into the nature of probationary employment, highlighting the insecure nature of that stage of employment, particularly for police officers. The Court also commented on the implications of employers having an “unfettered power” to dismiss their employees. In reaching their decisions the judges relied on some different, and incompatible and incomplete, approaches to interpreting legislation. This suggests that there are disagreements within the Court on how to tackle the task of giving meaning to statutes. Continue reading