Simon Bridges' handling of Jami-Lee Ross affair a 'disaster' - expert

Employment law experts are divided on Simon Bridges' handling of the sacking of Jami-Lee Ross and the alleged complaints laid against the Botany MP.

The National Party caucus unanimously voted to expel Mr Ross from the party in October, but a new leaked recording of a conversation between Mr Ross, Mr Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett has shed light on the events leading up to that tumultuous day.

Employment lawyer Bridget Smith of SBM Legal says the recording appears to show when it came to allegations of inappropriate behaviour, Mr Bridges and Ms Bennett had already made their mind up.

The "four or five" women Mr Bridges mentioned on The AM Show on Monday didn't lay formal complaints, but their concerns still managed to reach the highest levels of the National Party.

"The thing that concerns me most is Jami-Lee Ross saying, 'You haven't actually told me what I've alleged to have done,'" Ms Smith told Newshub.

"The issue for Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett and the National Party appears to be they are saying, 'We have these women make complaints to us, but they weren't actually complaints - we didn't have their authority to put them to you. They were saying you behaved inappropriately.'

"The way it reads it seems like Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett had made up their minds that that was in fact the case without any form of investigation or giving Jami-Lee Ross any opportunity to respond. They simply moved in: 'We've been told you've done this, therefore you must have done this and we are going to talk about how best to manage this.'"

Simon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross and Paula Bennett.
Simon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross and Paula Bennett. Photo credit: Getty/Newshub.

Ms Smith said Mr Bridges and Ms Bennett aren't the only bosses having to deal with complaints where the alleged victim doesn't want to alert the alleged offender by laying a formal complaint.

"That's an issue many employers around the country face basically every day… What do you do in that situation?"

Bill Hodge of the University of Auckland Law School says neither Mr Bridges nor Mr Ross had an obligation to consider the women's complaints, from an employment perspective.

"Jami-Lee is not the employer, Simon Bridges is not he employer - it's either Parliamentary Services or Ministerial Services, for example... All good employers have policies in place providing for a channel - the channel is not ordinarily to go to another politician, it's to go to the legal employer."

But as a political party, whose success or failure is decided on whether it can win the public's trust, Dr Hodge says the handling of their complaints is something they'd have to consider closely - hence why they reached the very top.

Technically he says Mr Bridges did nothing wrong, since he's neither the women's employer, nor Mr Ross. But Ms Smith isn't so sure.

"It's kind of analogous to a sports team - Simon Bridges is the captain of the team, so he is the 'boss' of the team. Jami-Lee Ross is a less senior member of the team.

"Simon Bridges doesn't directly employ him, but he's kind of the boss of his side - he can make decisions that affect him, so I think the same principals of natural justice that apply in an employment relationship apply in this situation."

While not having any formal complaints complicates matters, she says Mr Ross still had the right to be told what it is he allegedly did.

"The fact is if someone alleges you've done something, you're entitled to know what it is you are alleged to have done and an opportunity to respond."

Again, Dr Hodge says Mr Bridges has "a huge amount of discretion which can't be subjected to court scrutiny in terms of his own decision-making", since Mr Ross is not technically employed by Mr Bridges.

"He either puts boundaries in place - or say look, we can't trust you any longer in a position of responsibility. He's got a difficult line to walk."

Another area Ms Smith thinks Mr Bridges made a mistake was telling Mr Ross that if he stuck to the story that he was going on medical leave, Mr Bridges wouldn't go public with the allegations.

"I give you my 100 percent assurance that if you go with the statement along the lines we've talked about, I will never badmouth you in relation to this - privately, publicly, in background, off the record in any way," Mr Bridges says in the latest leaked recording.

"It almost sounds like blackmail," said Ms Smith.

Jami-Lee Ross
Jami-Lee Ross Photo credit: Getty

While non-disclosure agreements are common when an employee leaves an organisation for good and everyone decides to be "mature" and go their separate ways, this leave was only meant to be temporary - any conflicts between Mr Ross and the party leadership would still be there, potentially to be made public, when Mr Ross came back.

"You shouldn't write cheques your mouth can't cash," said Ms Smith.

The political fallout

Though Dr Hodge and Ms Smith hold differing views on whether Mr Ross and the women got a fair go, they both agree the whole affair - sparked by the leaking of a document that was going to be made public anyway - has been a trainwreck for the National Party.

"I think it was probably a mistake from the get-go to go after the leaker of the expenses," said Dr Hodge.

He said the National Party leadership may have gone after the leaker thinking the expenses were just the "tip of the iceberg",  but "it's not like they hold official information, or the Chinese were dependant on finding out how many miles he had driven".

"The whole thing is a bit of a disaster," said Ms Smith.