Opinion Number. 1503

Subject

Public Service defamation of one officer and his daughter by another officer: successful action for slander resulting in award of damages: statements of scandalous and highly offensive nature: whether ‘disgraceful and improper conduct’: competence of disciplinary proceedings

Key Legislation

Commonwealth Public Service Act 1922 s 55(1)(e)

Date
Client
The Secretary, Public Service Board

The Secretary, Public Service Board, has forwarded the following memorandum for advice:

  • The accompanying file of papers refers to an action for slander brought by Mr T., Head Lightkeeper, Marine Branch, Department of Transport, and his daughter, against Mr D., Lightkeeper.
  1. The copy of the judgment of the Court which is contained in the file shows that the finding of the Court was in favour of the plaintiffs and that damages were awarded to them.
  2. The Board would be glad to be informed as to whether, having regard to the nature of the slander, the publicity given to the matter by Court proceedings and to the finding of the Court, a charge of improper conduct could be preferred against Lightkeeper D. under section 55 (1)(e) of the Commonwealth Public Service Act. If so, advice as to the form in which the charge should be laid would be appreciated.
  3. An early reply is requested as Lightkeeper D. is at present not occupying a position of Lightkeeper and it is desired to reach finality in the matter of his disposal as soon as possible.

Section 55(1) of the Commonwealth Public Service Act 1922–1931 reads, inter alia, as follows:

55.(1) An officer (other than an officer in the First or Second Division) who —

  1. is guilty of any disgraceful or improper conduct, either in his official capacity or otherwise; or

shall be guilty of an offence, and shall be liable to such punishment as is determined upon under the provisions of this section.

Paragraph (e) of section 55(1) is a very wide provision. It includes improper conduct of officers not only in regard to the performance of their official duties but in their private capacity as ordinary members of the community.

In this case, however, the conduct of Mr D. had a direct connexion with his service to the Commonwealth, inasmuch as his statements were made about a fellow officer employed on the same station and coming to the knowledge of that other officer caused bad feeling and inharmonious relations with probable detriment to the service.

The statements made were of a scandalous and highly offensive nature and have been found by a Court to justify a claim for damages by the slandered officer.

The circumstances of this case lead me to the opinion that the cause of civil action against Mr D. amounts to disgraceful and improper conduct within the meaning of section 55 of the Commonwealth Public Service Act 1922–1931 and that it is competent for proceedings to be taken accordingly under that section.

[Vol. 25, p. 519]