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SRC sacks in-house lawyer after long-running tensions mount

Six presidents, three workplace complaints and thousands of student dollars later, dismissal is on the table

The University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council (SRC) is in disarray after clashing with a paid staff member on a backdrop of several unresolved workplace conflicts spanning six presidents, a spate of workplace complaints, and thousands of dollars in student money expended in pursuit of a resolution. This week, a resolution may have finally surfaced.

The SRC dismissed its principal lawyer today after receiving advice from former Industrial Relations Commissioner Chris McArdle, according to the organisation’s President Jacky He.

In dramatic scenes earlier in the week,  Thomas McLoughlin — who has been Principal of the student-funded SRC Legal Service (SLS) since 2014 and worked under six presidents since that time — published a public Facebook post on Wednesday recusing himself from all legal advice work for President He.

McLoughlin also recused himself from acting for He and the SRC in an ongoing defamation lawsuit filed by former Senate Fellow Patrick Massarani against 2014 Honi editor Georgia Kriz.

In his post, McLoughlin accused He of abusing his position on the SLS Board, a special committee which makes decisions relating to the direction of the SLS and counts the SRC’s co-General Secretaries Niamh Callinan and Yuxuan Yang, and McLoughlin amongst its members.

“I learned that Jacky / Yisheng He, called a secret SLS board meeting last Friday, considered a secret complaint against this writer, and this time obtained a legal resolution of the SLS board (in my absence) for a new private investigator to deflect from, and reprisal for [sic], new breaches of solicitor conduct rules,” the post read.

SRC President Jacky He told Honi the meeting was intentionally held without McLoughlin to avoid conflicts of interest under the SRC Legal Service’s enterprise bargaining agreement.

Tensions came to a head on Friday when SRC President Jacky He issued McLoughlin an ultimatum: to withdraw his recusal and resume providing legal advice work to the SRC, or be dismissed.

Honi understands McLoughlin did not agree, lodged a workplace bullying complaint in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and has since been dismissed from his role as Principal Solicitor.

Internal tensions between the SRC and McLoughlin first took root in 2015 with a workplace complaint which was unsuccessfully mediated by a human resources company retained by the SRC’s general secretaries.

More complaints followed in 2016 and 2018. The 2016 complaint was referred to external bodies, including the NSW Office of the Legal Services Commissioner, which dismissed the complaint against McLoughlin. In 2018, employment law specialist Kelly Godfrey was asked to make recommendations for the issue’s resolution.

However, animosity lingered and an employee subsequently resigned from the SRC. Another workplace complaint was made earlier this year, prompting the SRC to recruit employment lawyer Chris McArdle to conduct an investigation into the alleged conduct and attempt a new mediation. That investigation is ongoing.

Most of the details of the workplace complaints against McLoughlin are highly confidential because they identify current and former employees of the SRC. Honi understands they included allegations of racism, workplace bullying and professional misconduct.

McLoughlin has always denied those complaints. In a public Facebook post, he described the complaints as “constant power plays to avoid compliance with the supervision role of the principal [solicitor].”

“It’s going to stop and I am going to teach this president how raw political power is subject to the rule of law. A lesson all the panda faction can benefit from learning. And not just the panda faction,” the post read, referring to the political faction of the current SRC president.

By Saturday, McLoughlin told Honi he had been locked out from the SLS office and was considering applying for unfair dismissal. Due to statutory limitation periods, he will only have 21 days to make such an application to the FWC.

“This is a really bad and terrible coup with no transparency with the effect of covering up abuses of s.39 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law – things like breaches of confidentiality, things like duress to act when conflicted out, things like malicious unfounded allegations,” McLoughlin said.

His remaining clients and matters will be transferred to the remaining lawyer SLS, An Li, although Honi understands that five of McLoughlin’s clients have chosen to continue on with his services.

The capacity of the now understaffed legal service has been thrown into doubt, continuing a tumultuous year for the SLS after it was sidelined in March when the SRC partnered with an external legal services provider, Longton Legal, without executive consultation.

The SLS — ordinarily managed by two solicitors — provides around 700 undergraduate students with free legal advice and representation annually as well as referring students to community legal centres and other student support organisations.

The funding for the SLS is overwhelmingly sourced from student wallets as part of the SRC’s annual student services and amenities fee allocation.

In 2018, SLS received $162,000 in student funding, according to financial documents submitted to the charity regulator last month.

Editor’s note: This article was amended after publication to reflect new information relating to McLoughlin’s retention of student clients. Since publication, McLoughlin has been removed from the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission register as a director of the SRC Legal Service. McLoughlin also lodged an unfair dismissal application against the SRC on 2 July. SRC President Jacky He has made a public statement viewable here. The SRC has also agreed to pay McLoughlin around $18,000 in accrued leave entitlements.