Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland: Employment Court decision

Monday 8 July 2024

The University of Auckland has received the Employment Court’s decision on action taken by Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles and acknowledges the findings.

The judgment found there was no breach of academic freedom.

Judge Holden held: “While it was suggested that academic freedom was key to this case, I do not agree. The University was not attempting to suppress new ideas, or controversial or unpopular opinions; the opinions Associate Professor Wiles and her colleagues were expressing were mainstream at the time they were being given, and it was not suggested those opinions should or could be kept from public view. Associate Professor Wiles’s commentary was consistent with the advice being provided by the Government and many other sources.” [Decision paragraph 176]

Vice Chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater says, “This is a significant ruling from New Zealand’s Employment Court on academic freedom, which will be well received by universities in New Zealand and around the world.”

Judge Holden found the University breached some health and safety provisions with the decision explaining that “While there was a breach of Associate Professor Wiles’s employment agreement, I accept that it was not intentional and that the University continues to take steps to improve its response to situations such as the one Associate Professor Wiles found herself in. Those factors, together with the circumstances in which the breach occurred, mean I do not consider this case is one for which a penalty for breach of contract is warranted. “ [187]

Further, Judge Holden found, "I do not find that it was a breach to which s 4A of the Act applies; it was not deliberate, serious, and sustained, or intended to undermine the employment relationship between the Vice-Chancellor and Associate Professor Wiles.” [188]

The judgment recognises the Covid-19 context, also observing that “although the University’s approach was deficient in that it was reactive and not expansive enough, I accept that the University did make efforts to comply with its health and safety obligations within the confines of its existent health and safety framework. “[165]

Judge Holden held that the claims in relation to Te Tiriti were unfounded.

While acknowledging the University’s efforts to support Associate Professor Wiles, the Judge awarded her $20,000 in general damages. No penalty has been awarded for a breach of good faith, breach of contract, or breach of health and safety.

The Judge also accepted that “not all of the matters raised by Associate Professor Wiles were in breach of the University’s health and safety duties.” In addition, there was no breach of any legal obligation the University owed Associate Professor Wiles on specific claims. [158]

The decision reserves costs.

Professor Freshwater is pleased that the decision has been released after a three-and-a-half-week hearing in November 2023.

All media enquiries in relation to this case should be directed to the Vice Chancellor’s Office.