Nothing brings a group of work colleagues together like the shared hope that they can win a fortune playing the lottery. What work team has not bonded over the impossible dream that this week will be the week their lotto numbers come up and they can march as one into the boss’s office, quit on the spot, and go and live a life of luxury?

Second only to team drinks on a Friday night, the teammate lottery syndicate is one of the all-time great Australian workplace bonding rituals. For those who have not had the joy of participating in a workplace lottery syndicate, this is where a group of people at work each contribute an agreed amount of money towards a weekly lottery draw (usually trusting it to the most organised / bossy person in the group). A team representative then buys a bunch of entries in the syndicate’s collective name.

The idea is that by each contributing money, the syndicate can play more games and increase their chance of winning. And if one ticket wins, everyone in the syndicate wins, irrespective of who actually bought that ticket. While waiting for the lottery draw, the group can avoid actual work by telling each other what they will do with their winnings.

But there is a dark side to any workplace lottery syndicate that whispers in the ears of all syndicate members and haunts their dreams.

Being in a syndicate means there is a great deal of pressure on each member to make sure they participate in every weekly lottery draw by contributing their portion of the entry fee. The horror scenario for any member is that they go on leave for a week, forget to leave money in advance, and it just so happens that is the week that the syndicate wins big.

Any worker playing in a lottery syndicate that is about to go on leave should ask, in a concerned tone: will I be entitled to a share of any winnings of the syndicate if I don’t contribute my share of the entry fee while I am away?

The laws on workplace lottery syndicates do very little to ease the concerns of such a syndicate member. In fact, a number of court decisions have made me wonder why anyone would want to be involved in a lottery syndicate at all.

In a good example from a recent court case, a Melbourne newsagency encouraged its customers to enter a lottery syndicate with each other. Ten customers formed a syndicate, which then started to entered a weekly lottery draw with the newsagent collecting their entry fees and placing their lottery entries. They called their syndicate “The Big Kahuna”, because why not?

I was not planning to quote legal cases in this book because they are boring and not particularly helpful to you. However, the opening paragraphs of the judge’s decision in this case are amazing and give a great summary of the facts of this case. That means I am going to quote part of a legal case to you after all, sorry.

Over to you, beach-loving Justice Vickery of the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria:

‘“Kahuna” is a Hawaiian word which can be used to describe a “priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, or expert in any profession”. “The Big Kahuna” in surfing language can be traced back to the 1959 film “Gidget”, where the name was applied to the leader of a group of surfers. From that origin, it evolved to describe the best surfer on the beach.

Surfing is a pleasurable pastime but it is well stocked with chance. Sandbars, rocks, reefs, marine creatures and perhaps above all, other surfers, combine with the ever present challenges of unpredictable wave patterns.

Considerations such as these, no doubt, also inspired adoption of the name “The Big Kahuna” by certain syndicates of investors in the Australian lottery known as “Tattslotto”. In particular, the name was used by syndicates of persons who were accustomed to purchasing shares in large Tattslotto drawings from an agency conducted by [the newsagency] and [the newsagent].

On 1 November 2008, in Tattslotto draw number 2847, the sorcery worked for “The Big Kahuna”. The syndicate won a total of $867,000.’

Yes, this legend of a judge used surfing and Hawaiian surf culture to describe a complex legal case. More judges should be like this one. The case involved one particular member of the Big Kahuna syndicate, who had a habit of not always paying his share of the cost of the syndicate’s lottery tickets before each lottery was drawn.

In the lead-up to one of the biggest jackpot draws of the year this forgetful member said he would once again be part of the syndicate. All well for him so far. However, as was his habit, he did not pay his portion of the entry fee up front.

A new customer happened to go to the newsagency on the day of the draw, saw signs advertising the Big Kahuna syndicate, and asked if he could participate in it. He obviously liked his chances. That new customer was told by the newsagent that the syndicate was technically full, but after the newsagent considered things for a moment he decided that the forgetful member was less than trustworthy. The newsagent decided that if the new customer could pay the entry amount upfront, right there and then, the new customer could take the place of the forgetful member in the syndicate for that particular week. The new customer paid up, took the last spot and in doing so denied the forgetful member the chance to participate in the Big Kahuna for that week.

You can already see where this is going. The Big Kahuna won the jackpot, so our friend the forgetful member rocked up to collect his share of the winnings, a smile on his face and a whistle on his lips. That smile quickly turned upside down and that whistle turned into a scream when he was told by the newsagent that: (1) he had not paid his portion of the entry fee, (2) for this reason, he was not part of the Big Kahuna for the winning draw, and (3) he was therefore entitled to a big fat load of nothing. The new customer, as a Big Kahuna member for that week, got his share of the winnings and was obviously very happy with how things worked out.

This quickly led to legal proceedings by the forgetful member against the newsagent. He argued that there was an informal contract with the newsagent that meant that the forgetful member would always be part of the syndicate even if he paid his entry fee after a draw. He claimed that the newsagent had breached this contract by allowing the new customer to take his place.

The forgetful member lost the case for procedural reasons (or, as I like to call them, dirty lawyer tricks), but the judge’s decision was still important (not just because of the awesome surfing movie quotes the judge busted out). The judge decided that an informal arrangement between syndicate members can be legally binding. If there is a mutual agreement, written or unwritten, between the syndicate members that says who is part of the syndicate, how much each person contributes, and when that contribution needs to be made, then the syndicate cannot simply change that pattern of behaviour or the informal ‘rules of the game’ without all members agreeing, or any member who does not agree to these changes having the chance to drop out of the syndicate.

To avoid issues, I strongly suggest that a workplace syndicate have a practice that requires all syndicate members to pay the entry fee BEFORE the draw takes place and have an agreement in writing (maybe a group email) where everyone confirms that prepayment is a requirement of entry into the syndicate. That way, if one team member forgets or refuses to pay one week, that person knows what the consequences are if the syndicate wins that week.

To put it in surfing language: the bogus non-paying member needs to know that if no payment is received the non-paying member is wiped out of the syndicate and does not get to drop in on the once in a lifetime opportunity to hang ten on a tsunami sized amount of lottery winnings.