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With all due respect: Be jolly careful

Every Issue

Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.87

As we approach the festive season our thoughts turn to family gatherings and gift giving, summer holidays and over-indulgence. ’Tis the season to be jolly . . . and be jolly careful.

Any lawyer will tell you the season of goodwill often fails to live up to its name with lawsuits outnumbering Santa suits. The Yuletide spirit diluted by family breakdown, road trauma, sexual harassment and religious strife, and Boxing Day turned into box-on day.

The dangers are neatly summed up in the joke about the solicitor who sends a client a card wishing him and his family a merry Christmas and happy New Year. At the bottom is the disclaimer, “outcome not guaranteed”.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of lawyers in France, probably because the French worked out that when Christmas and the law collide they deliver a sackful of lawsuits.

Near the top of the litigation danger tree is the office Christmas party, a potential legal minefield for employers. And it’s not just the over-imbibed employee with a nose redder than Rudolph’s who decides it will be a jolly jape to do some creative photocopying.

The National Safety Council of Australia runs seminars warning companies that Christmas parties ruin more careers than any other workplace event. The Council says excess alcohol leads to offensive and sexist comments, loutish behaviour, sexual harassment and bullying. What goes on under the mistletoe or in the stationery cupboard can be a problem and the apparently innocuous Kris Kringle present swapping iss also deemed a high risk activity because inappropriate gifts may cause offence.

The office of the Fair Work Ombudsman has a list of party do’s and don’ts on its website. Employers are advised to run a pre-event risk assessment, ensure extra insurance cover, help employees get home, serve alcohol responsibly and warn about sexual harassment. And you thought this was supposed to be fun?

In our multicultural and multi-faith society, celebrating Christmas can be tricky. Some Victorian schools and kindergartens have refused to stage Christmas celebrations for fear of breaching human rights laws.

But it is our litigious friends in America who have turned Christmas into a non-stop snowball fight between religious groups and secularists. Lawyers in the US deck the halls of justice with statements of claim on behalf of offended or excluded clients.

The US Federal Court had to adjudicate after secular groups in Santa Monica demanded equal treatment in the allocation of 21 stalls used for life-size nativity scenes. The city council ran a lottery and the secular groups won 18 stalls, two went to traditional Christmas displays and one to a Hanukkah display, prompting a lawsuit from a religious group.

Republican Governor Rick Perry solved the problem in Texas this year by passing a “Merry Christmas Bill” that allows teachers to put up religious displays in their classrooms, unrestricted, and without any fear of litigation. After he made Christmas compulsory, Mr Perry added the somewhat controversial statement that: “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion”. The law may be challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

So what’s my Christmas message? Bah humbug! Oh, and compliments of the season.

Enjoy laughing at the failings, foibles and faux pas of others? Of course you do. Then why not contribute to WADR? By email to, by fax on 9607 9451 or by mail C/- LIJ, 470 Bourke Street, Melbourne 3000.


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