Some years ago, I had an experience during a conciliation at the Fair Work Commission (FWC) that left a bad taste in my mouth.
I was representing an employer in a conciliation, and the applicant was being represented by a paid agent. The conduct of the paid agent was so concerning that both my instructor and I spent most of the conciliation perplexed.
It was clear the applicant had no idea about the process they were involved in and had a severe misunderstanding of the legal principles at play. It was also very clear that the applicant was being pressured by their paid agent to accept a settlement, to ensure the agent would be able to collect their fee under the “No Win No Pay” scheme the applicant had agreed to. The agent also asked for the funds from the settlement to be paid into the agent’s bank account, and not the applicant.
“And there’s nothing we can do to stop what’s happening?” my instructor asked incredulously.
“No” I said, explaining the lack of regulation in this space.
The matter ultimately resolved, but it was concerning for both me and my instructor. In my experience, while employers are usually keen to resolve matters, they are less keen when it is blatantly obvious that a paid agent is not acting in the best interests of who they represent. We like to know that we are operating in a system that offers a fair process for all, regardless of size and bank balance.
Thankfully, I am not the only one with concerns about the misleading and unethical conduct by some paid agents and the FWC is finally responding in an attempt to address the issue.
Representation in the FWC
The FWC is designed to be easily accessible and informal, meaning individuals and businesses can represent themselves if they want. However, it is not uncommon for people involved in matters before the FWC to be represented by a union or employer association, or by a lawyer or paid agent subject to permission requirements in the Fair Work Act 2009 being met.
On one hand, lawyers are required to be admitted to the legal profession and are subject to regulation of qualifications, conduct, ethics and financial dealings as well as ongoing mandatory continuing professional development.
But paid agents are non-lawyers who charge a fee for their services of representing an individual in the FWC and do not have any qualification requirements, nor are they subject to any professional scheme that regulates their conduct, ethics, financial dealings or professional development.
If you do a quick Google search, you will find several sophisticated-looking businesses offering services as paid agents to disgruntled and former employees. These businesses usually offer free initial consults and services on a “No Win No Fee” basis and make lofty claims about their track records in the FWC. It is not hard to see why someone who may be vulnerable would sign up.
However, the reality is that lawyers and paid agents are vastly different when it comes to how they can be held professionally responsible and accountable for their conduct, thus setting the stage for a greater likelihood that the applicant who uses a paid agent will be taken advantage of. While not all paid agents would seek to do this, there is worrying evidence that suggests this is a widespread issue.
FWC takes notice
There are a growing number of cases where the FWC has found that paid agents have:
- demonstrated a lack of care and attention and the necessary expertise;
- acted contrary to the client’s instructions;
- engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct; or
- not acted in the best interests of who they represent.
Most recently, on 24 January 2024, President Hatcher delivered a scathing assessment of a paid agent company called Employee Dismissals. In his recommendation in Samuel Howell v Elite Elevators Corporation Pty Ltd  FWC 206 (Howell v Elite Elevators), President Hatcher did not hold back in his damning description of Employee Dismissals’ conduct while representing Mr Howell, which included:
- providing incorrect and misleading information to Mr Howell about the FWC’s role and powers and the applicable process;
- the complex terms and conditions contained in the engagement agreement Mr Howell signed, particularly as they relate to the No Win No Fee arrangement;
- the false claims Employee Dismissals made about their ‘win rate’ of having dismissals “reversed”; and
- the way in which, post conciliation, Employee Dismissal directed Elite Elevators to make the settlement payment directly to them, and not Mr Howell, without him agreeing to this as part of the settlement or discussing this with him.
President Hatcher then went on to identify 30 other cases since 2020 in which the conduct of Employee Dismissals’ agents had been “problematic”, and concluded his recommendation by saying that:
“… on the basis of the above facts, my opinion is that. . . Employee Dismissals has engaged in misleading and unethical conduct in connection with its representation of Mr Howell as paid agent in this matter and has not acted in his best interests”.
A welcome announcement
In very welcome news (and no doubt as a direct and immediate response to the conclusion President Hatcher reached in Howell v Elite Elevators), the FWC announced on 30 January 2024 that it will establish a Paid Agents Working Group to look at this very issue.
President Hatcher will lead the Working Group, which also includes senior Commission Members and senior FWC staff.
Following President Hatcher’s recommendation in Howell v Elite Elevators, the stated purpose of the Working Group is to identify and guide the implementation of measures with the aim of ensuring that all paid agents appearing before the FWC:
- conduct themselves in an ethical and honest manner;
- act in the best interests of the parties they represent; and
- generally operate in accordance with standards that are broadly consistent with what would be expected of a lawyer in the same circumstances.
The Working Group will not look at any one matter in isolation and have indicated that they will consult with regular representatives involved in individual dispute matters before the FWC, as well as with law societies, peak bodies, and other interested parties.
The FWC has not provided any indication of what measures it is looking at or how long the process will take. At a minimum, the FWC should implement guidelines or require paid agents to adhere to protocols or undertakings as a condition of representation.
Whatever the outcome, I am not alone in welcoming President Hatcher’s formation of the Working Group as a step in the right direction and one which validates the concerns and frustrations that I and many of my colleagues and clients regularly express following interactions with paid agents.
It is comforting to know that the IR system within which we operate will not allow for vulnerable people to be taken advantage of, addresses unconscionable conduct, and holds people to account.