Former NAAJA chief executive wins unfair dismissal case

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun28,2024
Priscilla Atkins has successfully sued the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) for wrongful dismissal.

Ms Atkins had been at the helm of the agency for almost two decades before her role was suspended in November 2022 and later terminated in January 2023.

She made five claims of adverse actions against her, including that the board acted without quorum to dismiss her, and that an investigation by an external company into her conduct did not give her adequate right of reply.
Ms Atkins alleged she was dismissed after lodging a complaint to the organisation’s board about the “performance and conduct” of its chief financial officer, Madhur Evans.
However, NAAJA claimed that part of the reason Ms Atkins was dismissed was because its chairperson, Colleen Rosas, alleged that Ms Atkins’ chief executive contract extension for $350,000 was forged using a digital signature.
On Thursday, Federal Court Justice Natalie Charlesworth ruled in favour of Ms Atkins on all five counts claiming NAAJA had contravened the Fair Work Act.

“The court is satisfied that each of the actions taken against Ms Atkins meets the description of adverse actions as defined in the Fair Work Act,” the justice said.

One of the “curious features of the case” was the fact NAAJA only asked for a response from Ms Atkins to BDO Australia’s external investigation after it had fired her, Justice Charlesworth said.
“Evidence does not support a conclusion that the few directors involved … had a genuine desire to afford Ms Atkins procedural fairness.”
Ms Atkins argued her dismissal was not passed with the required number of board members present, as outlined in the organisation’s constitution.

Justice Charlesworth accepted this claim and stated the termination of Ms Atkins employment was therefore “could not be legally effective”.

NAAJA backs its decision

Following the judgement, NAAJA’s board released a statement to the ABC backing its decision to terminate Ms Atkins’ employment and said they would seek further legal advice.
“NAAJA maintains a strong view that the board was justified in its decision to seek to terminate the employment of the former CEO and, as a result, we are surprised and disappointed by today’s decision,” a spokesperson for the NAAJA Board said.
“We will review today’s judgement and seek legal advice regarding our next steps.”

The agency is the Territory’s largest Aboriginal legal service and has faced a period of instability over the past 18 months.

In 2023 the Federal Court imposed an injunction on the board which prevented it recruiting or advertising for Ms Atkins’ position.
Since she was suspended, the organisation has had four senior executives, the latest being deputy chief executive Leeanne Caton who announced her resignation last week.
In late 2023 NAAJA suspended services in Alice Springs telling the court due to “severe staff shortages” it was unable to take on new criminal matters.
The move prompted outcry from federal senators and led to Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney appointing an independent auditor through the National Indigenous Affairs Agency, which funds NAAJA.
Earlier in June during NT budget estimates it was also revealed the Northern Territory and federal governments were attempting to recoup up to $2.7 million in unspent funds.

NT Department of Attorney-General and Justice executive Gemma Lake said more than $210,000 had been spent to appoint an auditor to investigate NAAJA’s recent financials.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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