Principles Of Employment Law: Just Cause

Published date04 November 2022
Subject MatterEmployment and HR, Employment Litigation/ Tribunals, Employee Rights/ Labour Relations
Law FirmLindsay Kenney LLP
AuthorChristopher Martin

In Reference Re Public Service Employee Relations Act (Alta), [1987] 1 S.C.R. 313, a leading Supreme Court of Canada (the 'SCC') case, Chief Justice Dickson states:

'Work is one of the most fundamental aspects in a person's life, providing the individual with a means of financial support and, as importantly, a contributory role in society. A person's employment is an essential component of his or her sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.'

This statement illustrates the importance of employment in one's life. As a result, it is no surprise that employers are held to a stringent standard by the law when terminating employment. The overarching principle is that an employer may terminate non-unionized employees at any time without cause, except as limited by legislation, the common law, and contractual rights which provide certain entitlements to an employee who is terminated without cause, for example, notice of termination or payment in lieu of notice.

Just Cause

Employers are legally entitled to dismiss an employee at any time with 'just cause'. If there is 'just cause', the employee is not entitled to notice of termination or payment in lieu. Accordingly, damages owed by the employer cannot flow from a termination with 'just cause'. 'Just cause' terminations are reserved for serious infractions by the employee. Conduct that offends the norms of society, for example, theft and physical assault would be grounds for immediate termination. But 'just cause' can arise as a result of employee conduct that is less serious and more common in a workplace.


In McPhillips v British Columbia Ferry Corporation, (1994) 45 B.C.A.C. 311 (CA) the court stated that 'dishonesty is always cause for dismissal because it is a breach of the condition of faithful service. It is the employer's choice whether to dismiss or to forgive.' However, this broad statement has been narrowed in subsequent cases. What has arisen, in general terms, is an examination of whether the dishonesty has caused irreconcilable breakdown in the employment relationship because the trust between an employer and its employee has been broken.

The courts will take a contextual approach and look at the nature and degree of the employee's conduct. It is important for employers to keep in mind that less serious sanctions short of dismissal may be more appropriate for less serious dishonest conduct. The court may also look to various mitigating factors, which may include the...

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