Teacher’s stressful cross-examination at trial found to be within the scope of employment
Warning: This article contains details about sexual abuse which may be upsetting for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.
A duty to report the sexual abuse of a disabled child resulted in a teacher being rigorously cross-examined at a criminal trial causing the teacher significant mental stress. This decision considers whether that mental stress was covered by the statutory worker’s compensation scheme in Tasmania.
- Whether the worker’s injury was contributed to a substantial degree by the worker’s employment, as required under s25(1)(b) of the Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Tas) (‘the Act’).
In 2013 a disabled student had disclosed to her teacher (the worker) that she had been sexually abused. This led to the worker and student speaking to the police. In 2019 the worker was notified that she would be required to appear in Court in relation to the allegations of sexual abuse. In 2019 the worker attended a directions hearing which she found 'horrific in itself'. The trial was delayed due to COVID-19, however in 2021, the trial proceeded and the worker was 'vigorously cross-examined'. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty at trial.
Medical evidence suggested the major or most significant factor, contributing to the worker’s mental state was the summons to attend court and the trial experience. This was the evidence the employer relied upon to argue that the worker’s employment had therefore not contributed to a substantial degree to her injury, because the requirement to attend Court was not a factor that could be 'reasonably incidental to her employment as a teacher' as it was the Court that compelled her to attend the trial.
The worker claimed she was a prescribed person within the meaning of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 (Tas) and was responsible as a teacher to disclose abuse complaints and attend Court in accordance with her employment with the Department of Education.
The decision at trial
The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 (Tas) obliged the worker to report abuse disclosures by students. The Tribunal found the 'worker was obliged to make the requisite notification when sexual abuse was disclosed to her by her student [and] … the employer has [not] advanced any argument upon which it could reasonably be considered that the worker’s attendance to give evidence at court in July 2021 was anything other than a matter naturally incidental to the worker’s employment as a teacher'.
An email written by the school principal, where the principal admitted to attending Court with the worker as a support person, further suggested the court appearance was incidental to the teacher’s employment.
The Tribunal ultimately decided the employer had not advanced any evidence indicating there was a reasonably arguable case, as required under the Act.
Implications for you
This decision serves as a reminder that the scope of a worker’s duties, including whether they are mandated or legislated, ought to be closely considered when reviewing liability for worker's compensation and whether the injury occurred during the course of a worker’s employment.