What is Just Cause?

Many people find themselves asking, just what is Just Cause? Just Cause is a legal term which means that if an employee is terminated based on their own misconduct then their employer need not pay them any notice.

Effectively the employee has breached the contract of employment by their actions and so their employer has the right to summarily terminate the employee.

The law of Just Cause in Canada is a complex creature of the common law. That is, it has been created based on what judges feel is reasonable over Canada’s recorded judicial history.

Holistic Examination of Facts

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ball v. MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. (1989), 29 C.C.E.L. 99 rejected any set rules for just cause. It is explicitly not the case that an employee stealing, or lying to their employer, or any other action is automatically Just Cause for dismissal. The surrounding circumstances must be examined in each case to determine if there is Just Cause.

Contractual terms must be exercised reasonably

Every term in an employment contract must be interpreted reasonably and not in an arbitrary way when terminating an employee. An employer cannot merely put in that persons can be terminated on a first offence and have this be binding on a court of law. Generally, employment contracts are interpreted in favour of employees and while a contract can lower the burden to prove Just Cause if it is specific enough it still can only do so reasonably as decided by the courts. If there are harsh terms that allow for termination at will, in an arbitrary manner, etc, these terms will not be enforceable

Common law is the most important factor

The common law means that like cases should be treated alike. Therefore previous cases with similar facts are very persuasive and legal research is key in these types of cases. However since there are many important factors such as age, length of service, personal characteristics of the employee, if the employee was apologetic, employer training programs in place, etc, it is usually impossible to find a single case which is exactly similar to the facts.

The act done by the employee which is allegedly cause is one factor of many. For example, the following actions have been found to not be just cause because of the other factors involved in the holistic analysis:

  • Assault of another employee off of company property: Ward v. McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. (1989), 39 D.L.R. (4th) 469
  • Minor theft and swearing at supervisor: Bravo v. Etobicoke Ironworks Ltd. (2005), 41 C.C.E.L. (3d) 95
  • Buying drugs from a co-worker during work hours: Soplet v. Bank of Nova Scotia (2007), 57 C.C.E.L. (3d) 269

However, for other similar cases with the same action, but different factors, the outcome has been reversed.

Because of the factors involved many cases of just cause settle prior to trial since success at trial cannot be assured by either side.

Whether you are an employer seeking to determine if you should terminate someone for cause or an employee wondering if you should sue for wrongful dismissal is important is to have an advocate to lobby for your case based on all of the multiplicity of factors. Contact us today for a free consultation.

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