Legal Professional Privilege and Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When a workplace investigation is required, there may occasionally be good reason to seek legal professional privilege regarding the findings. This is particularly the case in matters that may require criminal investigation, such as fraud, theft or sexual harassment. 

So, is it sufficient to engage a law firm when undertaking workplace investigation if you wish to attract legal professional privilege? We take a look at the what privilege means, and its role in investigations.

what exactly is legal professional privilege? 

The concept of legal professional privilege means that communications between an employer and their engaged lawyers are confidential and need not be disclosed, for example to another party or in a court, if the communications have been created for the 'dominant' purpose of providing legal advice or in anticipation of legal proceedings.  

What is the significance of legal professional privilege? 

In many circumstances, an employer's inner workings and thought processes may be something that is best kept private. Ultimately, the key purpose of legal professional privilege is to permit employers and other parties, such as external investigations, to freely discuss information with their solicitors in order to obtain legal advice, without being concerned that the material will form evidence in legal proceedings. 

Employers may wish to maintain privilege and keep parts of certain documents confidential if, for example, there are issues with disclosing identities of complainants or witnesses, or permitting potentially inflammatory or commercially sensitive information being disseminated through the workplace and beyond. 

how can workplace investigations attract legal professional privilege? 

If an organisation wishes to obtain privilege over communications, it is not sufficient simply to engage a law firm to undertake or oversee the workplace investigation. The law firm's engagement must be able to be demonstrated as being for the dominant purpose of preparing for imminent legal proceedings, or providing advice in relation to those proceedings.

This was demonstrated in the decision of Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006, in which Commissioner Wilson determined that the engagement of law firm Minter Ellison to conduct an investigation, under the auspices of providing legal advice, was really an investigation into workplace conduct within the employer council's policies and procedures. Accordingly, it was determined that legal professional privilege did not exist in those circumstances.      

loss of privilege

Legal professional privilege can be easily lost or waived. This can occur if a party explicitly states that they waive privilege, or if they provide a document to another party which would ordinarily attract privilege. It is important to note that it is generally irrelevant if the information was intentionally or accidentally provided - once that has occurred, it is hard to argue that the privilege should be maintained. Further, if a party attempts to rely on the contents of a document, it is rare that privilege will be successfully kept over the document. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services Ltd [2014] FCCA 1517, in which the employer attempted to rely on the contents of an investigation report but did not wish to disclose it. It was held that relying on a document without providing access to Mr Bartolo was unfair, and the document had to be produced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced across all steps of the investigation process, including legal professional privilege implications. If you are seeking a robust, defendable investigation, contact us today!      

Can You Deny Access to Workplace Investigation Documents?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Parties involved in a workplace investigation will often wish to gain access to documents that form part of the process. A difficult question for investigators is when - or if - it will be appropriate to release particular information. The reason for the request and the nature of the information will be key considerations, plus the investigator must find the best way to ensure that the access process is fair and transparent. As a recent case involving Australia Post reminds us, investigators need to carefully consider any decision to deny access to workplace investigation documents.

When to disclose information 

During the course of a workplace investigation it is entirely appropriate to keep parties informed of progress. In many cases, it will be quite simple to provide general information that keeps parties up-to-date, yet preserves any necessary privacy boundaries. One regular complaint from those under investigation is that they were 'kept in the dark' at every turn of the process. However, overt secrecy is often not necessary; disclosing information about delays, the nature of inquiries and the broad substance of allegations for example will generally not be problematic.

Another situation where information will need to be provided is when the investigator is required to do so by law. This could include as a response to a subpoena, summons or other court / police request, and should be responded to promptly.

Why should information be disclosed?

In many ways, it is simply professional best-practice to keep stakeholders informed of the progress of an investigation.

One specific advantage in providing regular updates and briefings is the effective management of expectations. Investigations can leave people feeling anxious, and the process can become impeded if individuals are forced to continually complain about non-disclosure. By regularly providing information about the scope, goals and process of the investigation, the 'temperature' in the workplace can be kept under control.

Providing information is also necessary to ensure transparency and accountability. The investigative process should, as far as possible, be able to withstand outside scrutiny both during and following completion. If it is later revealed that one party received greater assistance or exposure to materials than another, the chances of utilising the investigation outcomes will be greatly reduced.

A case in point

In the case of 'LC' and Australia Post (Freedom of information) [2017] AICmr 31, an employee made an FOI request for information relating to a workplace investigation.

Australia Post declined the request on the basis that the material was exempt according to the 'personal private information' exemption under s47F of the FOI Act. However, the commission found that the exemption does not apply to information that is likely to have a 'substantial adverse effect' on a person subject to investigation.

Investigators must ensure that the process remains transparent, and that any and all decisions to prevent disclosure are carefully considered in accordance with the legislation.

ensuring procedural fairness

One common mistake made by new workplace investigators is to see procedural fairness as a lightweight idea without much application in the real world. We know from experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Those under investigation deserve to know the nature of allegations made, to be given the opportunity to be properly heard, to have a support person if needed, to be questioned by an unbiased individual, and of course to have all relevant evidence considered in the decision. Disclosing information in an appropriate way, and at the right time, can certainly assist the overall fairness of the process - and prevent problems in the future.

When not to disclose

Although transparency and fairness are important elements of the workplace investigation, there are times where information should certainly not be disclosed. The right to privacy might require the investigator to protect information such as addresses, sensitive personal material or intellectual property matters as examples.

Further, it might be necessary to redact documents in order to protect anonymity or to withhold certain aspects of an allegation. However, overall investigators must ensure that a party is not substantially disadvantaged by the non-disclosure - a fine balancing act indeed.

The Australia Post case confirms our own experience in conducting fair workplace investigations. We certainly know that each situation will depend upon the particular facts when it comes to disclosing information to the parties involved.

If you need assistance on whether or not to disclose information during an investigation process, WISE provides supported investigation services and are here to help.