Emil Ford Lawyers

The Importance of Being Objective and Fair

Mr. Solomon (not his real name), a Western Samoan man living in NSW, wanted to be ordained as a minister. He’d been employed as a pastor for 8 years in the Seventh Day Adventist Church but, when he requested ordination, his request was denied. Shortly after this, Mr. Solomon was dismissed from employment by the Church Conference (the governing body of his church). Mr. Solomon later lodged a complaint with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, alleging that he was discriminated by the Church Conference on the basis of his race.

The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal dismissed Mr. Solomon’s complaint finding that he was dismissed not because of his race, but rather for the reasons that the Church Conference had offered at termination: loss of confidence, loss of trust, and a serious breakdown of the employment relationship. However, the Tribunal found that there were significant shortcomings with the investigation that was conducted by the investigator engaged by the Church Conference to conduct the investigation.

The main shortcoming of the investigation was, in the Tribunal’s view, the decision to limit the number of people interviewed to only a small group of people, none of whom could be described as a ‘supporter’ of Mr. Solomon.

What lessons can be learned by churches and other not-for-profit organisations from the experience of Mr. Solomon and the Seventh Day Adventist Church? One important lesson to learn is that those governing not-for-profits must have processes in place to deal fairly and promptly with complaints about people, especially ones that could lead to adverse consequences such as dismissal.

For some charity boards, it can be a daunting prospect to investigate such matters. What process should a board follow? How should it investigate a claim? And how does it maintain procedural fairness if the complaint is against one of its members?

We have helped many boards deal with complaints and have run many investigations. By conducting the investigation for the board, we have been able to maintain objectivity and procedural fairness throughout the investigative process.

If your board is dealing with a complaint or would like to know more about appropriate investigative procedures to deal fairly and promptly with complaints, please contact  or .

You may also enjoy reading David Ford’s 2004 paper Investigating the Investigators and his 2009 Practical Issues for Investigators.

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