Auckland University ordered to pay Siouxsie Wiles $20,000 in employment case

The Employment Court has found the University of Auckland breached its contractual obligations to protect the health and safety of its associate professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

It follows a three week hearing last November sparked by complaints by Wiles, who claimed the university did not do enough to ensure her safety, as harassment against her intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The microbiologist was a prominent public advocate and commentator as New Zealand officials responded to the outbreak.

In a ruling released on Monday, judge Joanna Holden said the university breached its health and safety obligations to Wiles.

“I find that the University’s approach to dealing with the circumstances of Associate Professor Wiles breached its health and safety obligations to her in that it failed to provide adequate protection and support to her.”

The ruling also found the university breached its contactual obligations to be a good employer as marked out in its Collective Agreement.

“Its obligation to be a good employer was also a term of the Collective Agreement and encompassed the University’s obligation to act in good faith towards its employees.

“Therefore, I also make a declaration that the University breached its contractual obligations to be a good employer, including as a result of its failure to act in good faith.”

Judge Holden also found the university promoted Wiles’ public work on Covid-19 but felt she “bore some of the responsibility for the negative backlash”.

“Rather than assisting Associate Professor Wiles to deal with the situation she was in, the correspondence from the University exacerbated her distress.”

Auckland, New Zealand - March 1, 2017: Sign and logo of University of Auckland set near modern dark gray offices in green park like environment. Gray sky.

Judge Holden disagreed with claims by the university that case fell “within the most modest level of cases”.

“The situation was ongoing for a significant period, and the insufficient action and perceived lack of support caused considerable distress to Associate Professor Wiles.”

The university has been ordered to pay Wiles $20,000 within the next 28 days.

Vindicated after ‘gruelling and expensive’ four years – Dr Wiles

Dr Wiles said she felt vindicated following a “gruelling and expensive” four years.

“As Judge Holden accepted, harassment of academics and experts is a long-standing and worldwide phenomenon. Harassment, antagonism, abuse, and threats have increased and become normalised.

“They happen online and offline, both of which can lead to emotional and physical harm.”

She added that after learning the university’s policies and practices were not fit for purpose, the Employment Court was the last resort.

“While the University of Auckland has made good progress in the intervening years, I agree with Judge Holden that there are still lessons for the university to learn.”

In a statement, the University of Auckland largely cited excerpts of the judge’s ruling, and said it “acknowledged” the Employment Court’s findings.

Vice chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater said it was a “significant ruling on academic freedom”, which would be well received by universities in New Zealand and around the world.

University of Otago’s professor Michael Baker – another prominent public health commentator during the pandemic – described the ruling as “a landmark”.

“As a fellow ‘Covid commentator’ I appreciate the huge personal effort and cost that Associate Professor Wiles has put into taking this case to court,” he said.

“I assume that this judgement has established an important precedent for the responsibilities of employers in this area. However, as a non-lawyer, I will need to wait for expert commentary on the wider legal implications of this case.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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