The ex-employee has been awarded costs in the ongoing dispute over her dismissal. Photo / Michael Cunningham
A Whangārei high school has been ordered to pay a learning support assistant more than $14,000 after unsuccessfully challenging an order that she destroys documents critical to her personal grievance claim.
Employment Court Judge Bruce Corkill ordered Whangārei Boys’ High School to pay the costs to former staff member Kirsty Hilford within 14 days.
Hilford was employed as a part-time learning assistant at Whangārei Boys’ High School in 2019 but things came to a head when she disagreed with a pay scale decision under her employment agreement.
Part of Hilford’s pay scale claim was around teaching students with learning disabilities and behavioural issues, and if successful, entitled her to back pay.
In late 2020, Hilford brought in the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI) to represent her in the pay dispute, which the board of trustees confirmed, along with her contract issues, remained unresolved heading into the 2021 school year.
At the beginning of 2021, the NZEI requested the school confirm Hilford’s employment in 2020 had not been for a fixed term and was therefore a continuing relationship under which she was entitled to be offered work that year.
The Employment Relations Authority found her employment ended at the beginning of February 2021 when the school continued to evade the issue the NZEI had raised about the permanency of her employment.
The ERA said the individual employment agreement entered into between the school and Hilford in early 2020 expressly replaced previous arrangements and understandings. It neither expressed nor identified her position as fixed-term.
Hilford filed a personal grievance for unjustified dismissal with the Employment Court, which is still pending a court hearing. Attached to her application were a number of school documents describing the personal situations and home life of students at the school.
This triggered an ongoing dispute over the student’s personal information, which Hilford claimed she had a right to in order to represent herself fairly.
The ERA ordered Hilford to destroy the documents, which she advised many months later were ‘destroyed by burning’, however, she hit a roadblock when she required the documents for her court case and challenged the order.
Judge Corkill overturned the authority’s decision and directed the ERA to release the documents to all parties with a redaction in student identifying details to protect the identity of the boys.
Hilford’s advocate Allan Halse submitted an award of $26,051 was appropriate, which included a meal allowance. However, Judge Corkill decided a 30 per cent discount was appropriate.
Halse told NZME they were frustrated at the significant reduction, given the high school submitted a starting point of $19,000.
“The ERA process disadvantages employees because they reduce the costs awarded. The taxpayer is paying the legal fees for the school through this process but the employee can’t get full costs when she wins,” Halse said.
“We carry the costs of this court case until she wins and to date I have personally put in $40,000 to the case that we will never recover.”
The school was ordered to pay Hilford $14,233 within 14 days. Judge Corkill rejected the school’s request for a payment deferral.
The employment hearing date for her personal grievance claim is still to be confirmed.
Shannon Pitman is a Whangārei-based reporter for Open Justice covering courts in the Te Tai Tokerau region. She is of Ngāpuhi/Ngātiwai/Ngāti Pūkenga descent and has worked in digital media for the past five years. She joined NZME in 2023.