In a landmark decision this week, the Supreme Court of Victoria has found the CFMEU guilty of criminal contempt and fined it $1.25 million for breaching court orders restraining it from hindering access to certain Grocon construction sites in Melbourne, including the Myer Emporium site.

Justice Anthony Cavanough classified the CFMEU’s contempts as “criminal” rather than civil, “perhaps for the first time in the Australian industrial context”.

What elevated the contempts to the level of criminality was the fact that they were committed repeatedly and in deliberate defiance of the court’s orders. His Honour described the CFMEU’s conduct as “exceptionally serious” and noted that the breaches of court orders occurred in public and were highly visible.

The fines needed to be sufficiently large, the Court said, in order to deter the CFMEU and others in the community from viewing contempt of court orders as an acceptable means to an end.

This decision sends a strong message that no member of society is above the law and that court penalties should not be seen as merely the price of doing business.

It has lead, in the past few days, to senior Labor figures criticising the CFMEU and seeking reform of the union’s practices. It has also resonated in public policy circles in connection with a bill before parliament to re-invigorate the Australian Building and Construction Commission. When fully operational and properly resourced, the ABCC had a dramatic effect on unlawful industrial action and other activities in the construction sector.

Read the full decision here.