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A Case of Bias or Just Business? Insights into a Tribunal Turmoil

In a recent unfolding within the Fair Work Commission (FWC), a complex scenario has ignited discussions about impartiality, technical glitches, and the delicate balance of justice. Bernie Riordan, a seasoned FWC member, found himself at the heart of controversy when Defend Fire Services Pty Ltd called for his recusal from their case, alleging bias and unprofessional conduct. However, the situation took an unexpected turn when Commissioner Riordan chose to reallocate the case, prioritizing the commission's resources over personal vindication.

Allegations of Bias and Misconduct

The dispute arose during a preliminary telephone conference where technical difficulties led to an abrupt decision by Commissioner Riordan to silence the business owner from Defend Fire, purportedly in a disrespectful manner. This incident sparked accusations of gender bias and partiality towards tradespeople, as the commissioner also showed a perceived camaraderie with a worker, also a tradesperson, sympathizing with his struggles in the Darwin heat.

A Case of Bias or Just Business? Insights into a Tribunal Turmoil
A Case of Bias or Just Business? Insights into a Tribunal Turmoil

Defend Fire interpreted these actions as a direct threat to the fairness of the upcoming hearing, particularly as the worker involved had made aggressive threats against the business owner, further complicating the matter.

The Commissioner’s Defense

In response, Commissioner Riordan refuted all allegations of bias. He explained his decision to silence the business owner was due to incomprehensible communication caused by the technical issues, not disrespect. Moreover, he emphasized his neutrality, asserting that being a tradesperson does not predispose his decisions in favor of such parties.

Despite these clarifications, the commissioner agreed to step down from the case to prevent further resource drainage on the commission, acknowledging the gravity of the accusations and the potential for an appeal that could delay the proceedings.

Implications for Fair Work Arbitration

This case highlights several critical aspects of workplace arbitration:

1. The Importance of Clear Communication: Technical issues can lead to misunderstandings and perceptions of unfairness. It's crucial for all parties to ensure clarity in communication, especially in a formal setting like arbitration.

2. Perceptions of Bias: Even unintended actions or words can be perceived as bias. This emphasizes the need for all judicial figures to practice utmost caution and transparency in their conduct to maintain trust in the judicial process.

3. Resource Management: The decision to reallocate the case instead of fighting the recusal showcases a pragmatic approach to managing judicial resources, which is often overlooked in discussions about justice.


The case between Defend Fire Services and the FWC serves as a poignant reminder of the complexities of legal arbitration. It underscores the challenges of maintaining impartiality and professionalism in the face of technical failures and intense personal accusations. As this case continues to unfold, it will undoubtedly serve as a benchmark for handling similar issues in the future, emphasizing the need for fairness, clarity, and resourcefulness in legal proceedings.

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