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Surge in public service workplace battles

Crackdowns on public service workplace discipline and compensation payouts have sent a "surge" of disputes though the tribunals and appeals bodies, according to a leading Canberra workplace lawyer.

Fewer public servants are seeking help from the internal APS review authority.
Fewer public servants are seeking help from the internal APS review authority. 

And figures from the Fair Work Commission and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal show the number of battles between public servants and their bosses are soaring with nearly 10 appeals against Comcare decisions each week in 2014-2015.

Fair Work judgments on Commonwealth workplace troubles are up 150 per cent already on 2013-2014 levels.

But fewer public servants are seeking help from the internal APS review authority, the Merit Protection Commissioner, with appeals against workplace decisions down more than 30 per cent so far in 2014-2015.

Barrister Allan Anforth says the trend in appeals to the AAT and the FWC shows that bosses are using boosted powers to turn the screws on their workers.

Mr Anforth says he believes "a surge" of cases working their way through the review bodies are partly a result of changes to the Public Service Act, which came into force about two years ago.

The suite of changes, designed to give the APS a tougher disciplinary edge considerably strengthened the hands of bosses in the service to move against non-performance or workplace misconduct.

But the barrister, who specialises in workplace compensation cases, says he is seeing more and more casualties of public service workplace battles, which often result in a worker going off sick and putting in a claim for compensation.

"When they bring those disciplinary or underperformance issues, and that includes bullying and things like that, it's such a stressor for individuals concerned and they often go off on sick or stress leave," Mr Anforth said.

"There will often be Comcare claims too."

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal saw a dramatic increase in appeals against decisions by workplace insurer Comcare in 2013-2014 with 511 cases lodged, up from 386 the previous year.

An AAT spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that another increase in cases looked likely this year with 504 disputes lodged as at May 31.

The Fair Work Commission has recorded judgments in 180 cases involving the Commonwealth of Australia in 2014-2015, up from 70 the previous year, although a spokeswoman for the Commission cautioned that the troubled APS bargaining process would have inflated those numbers.

Mr Anforth said many Comcare disputes came down to an employee saying they had been treated unfairly and a department defending its conduct, invoking the vexed "reasonable administrative action" defence.

"When (public servants) bring a Comcare claim, the inevitable defence from Comcare is 'reasonable administrative action' so they become litigated," he said.

"The Comcare stuff is sort of like a reflection of people having their claims dismissed."

Another public sector legal specialist Geoff Wilson of law firm Maurice Blackburn said he believed public servants and other workers were treated unfairly by the compensation system and it was unsurprising the number of claims was trending upwards.

"It is not surprising there has been an increase in disputed Comcare claims," Mr Wilson said.

"The structure of the scheme is fundamentally flawed - there is no finality for injured workers in being able to get off the system in a fair way, leading to high disputation rates.

"This is costly to Comcare, employers and employees."

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