Latest blog post by WHS Lawyer Greg Smith and co-author of Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk. Greg addresses an interesting conundrum that many of us may have encountered in our careers – our US readers may refer to it as “Pleading the 5th”. This article was first published here on My Safety Thoughts
Self incrimination in internal investigations: Is this really a thing?
If you have followed my thoughts over the past few years, you will know that one of my concerns about the increasing emphasis on legal sanctions and penalties for health and safety breaches is the likely increase in legal risk management strategies at the expense of health and safety management. (See for example: $450,000: Is this what we want from prosecutions?; Is this really what due diligence was designed for?;Rethinking safety prosecutions part 2)
This concern has poked its head up again in the recent Federal Court decision, Grant v BHP Coal Pty Ltd (No 2)  FCA 1374. The case dealt with important issues about the rights of an employer to insist employees undertake a medical assessment with a doctor of the employer’s choice, a topic that has pervaded the management of injured workers for many years.
This topic is important and serious, and it has implications for both employees and employers. But the case also touched on another, far less well understood issue – the rights of employees to claim to self incrimination and refuse to answer questions in a company’s internal safety investigation.
Does an employee have a legal right refuse to participate in your internal incident investigations on the basis that in doing so, they may expose themselves to the threat of prosecution?
The protection against self incrimination has long been recognised in health and safety legislation. Legislation recognises the difference between “voluntary” interviews and “compelled” interviews. In the latter case, information provided to a regulator during a compelled interview cannot be used against the person providing the information, except in very limited circumstances, such as perjury.
In the Grant case, the employee had been terminated following a long running dispute over his capacity to return to work. As part of that process, Mr Grant attended an interview about his refusal to attend a medical appointment with a company nominated doctor. During that interview, Mr Grant refused to answer questions unless they were put to him in writing.
During the various appeal stages of his case, Mr Grant asserted that he has refused to cooperate in the investigation on the basis of his privilege against self incrimination.
The Federal Court noted at :
Privilege against self-incrimination means that a witness cannot be compelled to answer questions that may show the witness has committed a crime with which the witness may be charged if the answers may place the witness in real and appreciable danger of conviction: Sorby v The Commonwealth (1983) 152 CLR 281 at 294.
The Federal Court went on to confirm the privilege against self incrimination :
- Can apply to questions asked by an employer ; and
- Can apply to questions asked during a workplace interview that have implications for a persons liability under health and safety legislation .
Unfortunately the Federal Court said that they could not decide the issue on the facts of the case. Or more eloquently, they said they could not decide it in “such a vacuum of facts” .
The Court did not need to decide the question of self incrimination to decide the case, but clearly reinforced its relevance in workplaces.
Of course, the next question that follows, is what is an employers rights in relation to an employee who refuses to participate in an investigation on the basis of self incrimination? Can they discipline them? Can they terminate their employment?
I do not want to try and give a definitive answer here, but it is at least arguable that any “adverse action” taken against an employee because they were exercising a legal right could amount to a breach of the General Protection provisions of the Fair Work Act, and leave the employer liable to penalties.
If the purpose of health and safety legislation is to help ensure safer workplaces, in my view, there is a need for constant vigilance to understand when the legislation undermines, as opposed to promotes, better safety management. If the legal risks have become so acute that employees no longer need to cooperate with safety investigations, it may at least be time for a discussion on the merits of penalties and prosecutions.