Technical Breaches of the Law and the De Minimis Rule-the Labour Court’s Approach

the labour court

What happens if there is a technical breach of the law by an employer but the employee has not suffered any prejudice or detriment?

Do you know what the “de minimis rule” is? It might be a good idea to be aware of it.

Let me explain.

An employer must give an employee a written statement of certain terms and conditions of employment within 2 months of starting the employment. This is normally referred to as a written contract.

The relevant legislation-the Terms of Employment (Information) act 1994-sets out the various things that need to be included in this statement. There are some further matters that must be included pursuant to the Terms of Employment (Additional Information) Order 1998 (SI 49/1998).

Between the 1994 Act and the statutory instrument from 1998 there is approximately 20 matters that must be covered.

What happens however if there is a technical breach of the obligation? By this I mean an employer does indeed give a written statement but omits a small number of things that he should have included, or there is some other technical breach of the obligation.

What happens if a minor, trivial, technical breach does not lead to any prejudice or disadvantage to the employee?

A recent Labour Court case dealt with such a claim in Component Distributors (CD Ireland) Ltd and Brigid (Beatrice) Burns.

The Complainant, Ms Burns, had brought a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission alleging breach of the Terms of Employment (Information) act 1994. The breaches were minor and the Adjudicator awarded her €200.

She appealed this decision to the Labour Court.

The alleged breaches of the employer’s obligations were

1. The full name of the employer was not set out in the contract insofar as the contract omitted “CD” and “(Ireland)”

2. The statement did not set out the employee’s breaks

3. The employer’s annual leave year did not run in tandem with the leave year referred to in the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997

The Labour Court and the De Minimis Rule

The Labour Court referred to a case called Patrick Hall v Irish Water TED161 in which it set out its approach to be adopted where a technical breach of this Act which had no practical consequences occurred. It then adopted and applied the reasoning set out in that case and it is worth taking a look at here.

In Patrick Hall v Irish Water TED161 the Labour Court commented:

As appears from the above, these complaints are wholly devoid of any substantive merit. The State has already incurred the costs associated with providing the Complainant with a hearing of these complaints at first instance and it is now obliged to incur the cost in time and expense of providing him with a full appeal before a division of the Court. That takes no account of the cost incurred by the Respondent in defending this case, both at first instance and now on appeal. The combined associated costs of processing and hearing these complaints is grossly disproportionate to any value that could have accrued to the Complainant if the technical infringements of which he complains had not occurred.

Moreover, the letter of offer furnished to the Complainant dated 25th July 2014 invited him to contact a named person if he wished to discuss or seek clarification on any of the terms proffered. The Complainant signed the statement without demur and returned it to the Respondent. Neither then or at any subsequent time did he request further or better particulars on any matter pertaining to his employment. The Court has no doubt that had he sought further information on any matter pertaining to his employment, including the matters which form the subject of his present complaints, it would have been provided by the Respondent.

In the circumstances of this case that represents an unacceptable squandering of public resources. It is a manifest absurdity to suggest, as the Complainant does, that these contraventions, if such they are, could or should be met with an award of monetary compensation. That is particularly so in circumstances in which the matters now complained of could easily have been rectified by a simple request to the Respondent to provide any further information that the Complainant considered necessary.

De Minimis rule

It is an established principle of the common law that a Court should not squander its resources in dealing with claims that are without substance because the contraventions complained of had no practical consequence for the plaintiff. This principle is encapsulated in the Latin maxim de minimis non curat lex (the law does not concern itself with trifles). The classic statement of where this principle should be applied is contained in the judgment of Henchy J. in the Supreme Court’s decision in Monaghan UDC v Alf-a-Bet Publications Ltd. [1980] I.L.R.M. 64, at page 69. Henchy J articulated a generally applicable test in the following terms: –

“In such circumstances, what the Legislature has, either immediately in the Act or immediately in the regulations, nominated as being obligatory may not be depreciated to the level of a mere direction except on the application of the de minimis rule. In other words, what the Legislature has prescribed, or allowed to be prescribed, in such circumstances as necessary should be treated by the courts as nothing short of necessary, and any deviation from the requirements must, before it can be overlooked, be shown, by the person seeking to have it excused, to be so trivial, or so technical, or so peripheral, or otherwise so insubstantial that, on the principle that it is the spirit rather than the letter of the law that matters, the prescribed obligation has been substantially, and therefore adequately, complied with.”

The Labour Court went further:

The Court is satisfied that, in the circumstances of this case, any deviations that may have occurred from what the strict letter of s. 3 of the Act, or from what the statutory instrument at issue prescribes, are so trivial, technical, peripheral or otherwise so insubstantial as to come within the de minimis rule. There can be no doubt that the Respondent provided the Complainant with all the information that he required in relation to the essential elements of the terms and conditions attaching to his particular employment. What is complained of is a failure to provide information on matters that had no practical significance in the context of the employment that he was offered and accepted.

In this case, Component Distributors (CD Ireland) Ltd and Brigid (Beatrice) Burns, the Labour Court determined as follows:

Determination

The within appeal is upheld in part as set out above. In its decision in Irish Water the Court held that where mere technical breaches of section 3 of the 1994 Act occur, “the dictates of fairness or equity could not justify an award of compensation”. The Court follows that reasoning in its approach to this claim.

The Court determines that the amount of compensation which is just and equitable in all the circumstances is nil. The Recommendation of the Adjudication Officer is varied accordingly.

You will note that even though the Labour Court agreed that there were breaches of the relevant act those breaches were so trivial, technical, peripheral or otherwise so insubstantial as to come within the de minimis rule.

And the Labour Court held that the technical breaches did not justify any compensation and reduced the employee’s award from €200 to nil.

Court of Appeal Clarifies the Legal Right to Representation in Disciplinary Proceedings in the Workplace

irish rail v barry mckelvey

A decision delivered by the Court of Appeal at the end of October 2018 throws further light on this question of the right to legal representation in the workplace during disciplinary hearings.

This issue was thrown into some degree of confusion by what appeared to be inconsistent High Court decisions in the cases of Lyons v Longford Westmeath Education and Training Board, E.G. v The Society of Actuaries in Ireland, and N.M. v Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board. (You can read about these 3 High Court decisions here).

Iarnród Éireann / Irish Rail v Barry McKelvey

In this case Mr. McKelvey, an Irish rail inspector was subjected to a disciplinary procedure in his workplace into an allegation of misuse of company issued fuel cards and alleged theft of fuel which led to “significant financial loss” for the employer. Mr. McKelvey was denied the right to legal representation at the disciplinary hearing. Mr. McKelvey went to the High Court about this issue and sought to have the disciplinary hearing halted.

The High Court decided that he was denied fair procedure and constitutional/natural justice by reason of this refusal by Iarnród Éireann, even though he had the assistance of an experienced trade union official.

The High Court halted the disciplinary proceeding against Mr. McKelvey as it held that he was entitled to legal representation. The High Court arrived at this decision due to a number of factors including:

  • The impact on his reputation and future employment prospects
  • The complexity of the case
  • The fact that issues of law would probably arise in the proceeding

The High Court decision to halt the disciplinary proceeding was appealed to the Court of Appeal by Irish Rail.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court in identifying the factors that a Court should look at when deciding this issue.

It disagreed with the High Court’s decision in the case of Mr. McKelvey, however, and held that the High Court had misapplied the factors to the circumstances of the case.

The Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the High Court and held that legal representation should only be granted in the most exceptional of circumstances. It also held that natural justice and fair procedures could be applied without the need for a lawyer and the help of an experienced trade union representative was sufficient stating, inter alia,

“While it is true to say that Mr McKelvey faces a disciplinary inquiry which could lead to his dismissal and which has the further potential to impact on his future employment prospects and his reputation, in this regard he is no different to a very substantial percentage of employees facing allegations of misconduct in the workplace. In my view, the allegation of misconduct made against Mr McKelvey is a straightforward one and I am not satisfied that he has identified any factual or legal complexities that may arise that he should not be in position to deal with adequately with the assistance of [his trade union representative].”

The Court of Appeal also made the point that workplace disciplinary investigations and hearings should not be directly compared with investigations and hearings carried out by professional regulatory bodies such as the Medical Council or other professional regulatory bodies.

The Court of Appeal did not clarify definitively, however, the question of the right to cross examine witnesses in a disciplinary hearing as Irish Rail had allowed this as part of its procedure and the question did not have to be addressed in the Court of Appeal.

Nevertheless, it is advisable that this right is afforded to employees involved in a disciplinary hearing even though there appears remain a difference of opinion amongst lawyers on this point.

The Court of appeal also left the door open to reapply to Mr. McKelvey if a complex issue of law arose in the process.

You can read the full decision of this Court of Appeal case here: Iarnród Éireann/Irish Rail and Barry McKelvey.

The Labour Court Recommends €90,000 Compensation In Unfair Dismissal Claim Against Park Hotel

park hotel unfair dismissal

I have written a number of blog posts about probation and the options open to an employee who has been dismissed whilst on probation.

The general position is that you cannot bring a claim for unfair dismissal under the unfair dismissal acts for section 2(1) Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977 sets out a number of categories of employees who are excluded from the protection of the act as follows:

2.—(1) This Act shall not apply in relation to any of the following persons:

(a) an employee (other than a person referred to in section 4 of this Act) who is dismissed, who, at the date of his dismissal, had less than one year’s continuous service with the employer who dismissed him and whose dismissal does not result wholly or mainly from the matters referred to in section 6 (2) (f) of this Act,

You will note that the act does not apply to employees with less than 12 months’ continuous service. Accordingly if you are fired with less than 12 months’ service you can almost alwasy forget about the unfair dismissals act, 1977.

Moreover, section 3 of the same act rules out employees on probation for it states:

3.—(1) This Act shall not apply in relation to the dismissal of an employee during a period starting with the commencement of the employment when he is on probation or undergoing training—
(a) if his contract of employment is in writing, the duration of the probation or training is 1 year or less and is specified in the contract, or
(b) if his contract of employment was made before the commencement of this Act and was not in writing and the duration of the probation or training is 1 year or less.
(2) This Act shall not apply in relation to the dismissal of an employee during a period starting with the commencement of the employment when he is undergoing training for the purpose of becoming qualified or registered, as the case may be, as a nurse, pharmacist, health inspector, medical laboratory technician, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, speech therapist, radiographer or social worker.

Recently, however, a case was brought by a former manager of the Park Hotel in Kenmare to the Labour Court. You may have heard of this hotel as it is owned and run by the high profile Brennan brothers who present that television programme where they go around telling other small business owners how to develop their small hotels or bed and breakfast business.

In this case, however, the general manager of the Park Hotel was employed on a 36 month contract and was dismissed during the probationary period without fair procedures.

Specifically the man was not told of any performance issues, no warning was given that his job may be at risk, no opportunity for representation was afforded to him, he was not given any reasons for the dismissal, and he was not given a right to reply.

The hotel relied on the contract of employment which clearly stated that either party terminate the contract by giving written notice.

How can the employee bring this claim to the Labour Court if the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977 excludes employees who have less than 12 months continuous service?

Labour Court and Industrial Relations Acts

The employee can bring a claim for unfair dismissal to the Labour Court under the Industrial Relations Act, 1969. This is precisely what happened in this case involving Francis Brennan’s Park Hotel and the Labour Court recognised that employer was entitled to dismiss the employee during the probationary period.

The Labour Court found, however, that the employee is still entitled to fair procedures and natural justice and in this case found that this did not occur.

Accordingly, the Labour Court recommended that the employer pay €90,000 in compensation for the unfair dismissal. Note that this is a ‘recommendation’ and is not legally enforceable.

Why would an employee go through this procedure and perhaps incur legal costs if he only ended up with an unenforceable recommendation which the employer can ignore?

Only the employee can answer that question but he may have hoped that the publicity surrounding the case may have persuaded the employer to settle his claim to avoid reputational damage to the hotel.

He may also have hoped that the employer would accept the moral or persuasive authority of the Labour Court’s recommendation and pay out.

Or he may have taken the case on a point of principle and to restore his good name and professional reputation if he felt that they were damaged as a result of the termination.

Conclusion

If you are an employer you may or may not, depending on your business, be concerned about reputational damage or the likelihood of industrial relations action on foot of a Labour Court recommendation which you may intend ignoring.

If you are concerned then you should ensure fair procedures and natural justice in the termination of any employee’s employment, even those on probation.

If you are an employee with less than 12 months service you may consider going this ‘industrial relations act’ route to the Labour Court; but you may end up with an unenforceable recommendation.

Read the full decision of this case here.

Legal Representation in Disciplinary Proceedings in the Workplace-October, 2018 WRC Decision Clarifies

legal representation disciplinary proceedings

Are you entitled to legal representation if you are involved in a disciplinary proceeding in your workplace?

If you are an employer how do you respond to requests from an employee who is the subject of a disciplinary or investigation procedure to be represented by a solicitor or barrister?

Last year I wrote about three High Court cases which looked at this issue and the whole area of fair procedures in investigations and disciplinary proceedings.

These cases were Lyons v Longford Westmeath Education and Training Board, E.G. v The Society of Actuaries in Ireland, and N.M. v Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board.

And there appeared to be a certain degree of inconsistency in these cases which left a feeling of uncertainty for employers and employees alike. That blog post is worth a read, however, as it will give you a good idea of the factors and issues which the Court will look at when addressing this question.

WRC Decision

More recently the WRC has had to determine this issue in A Security Officer v A Security Company (ADJ-00011096). In this case the security officer brought a claim for unfair dismissal.

He partially succeeded with his claim insofar as the Adjudication Officer, Catherine Byrne, held even though there were substantial grounds for the dismissal-gross misconduct constituting the failure to carry out a reasonable instruction and behaving in an aggressive, demanding and disrespectful manner to the company’s managers-he was not actually dismissed for these substantial reasons.

Instead he was dismissed without warning that his refusal to work a particular roster would lead to his dismissal.

Accordingly, it was held the dismissal procedure was unfair and he won his case for this reason; however, the adjudicator held that he contributed significantly (75%) to his own dismissal and, having regard for the fact that the had obtained new employment quickly, he was awarded only 1 week’s pay of €422.50 by way of compensation.

In the course of the hearing, however, the adjudicator was asked by the security officer’s representative to hold that the fact that he was not was not given the right to be represented by a solicitor or a member of the Citizens Information Service in meetings with the employer meant that the disciplinary process was flawed.

The adjudicator did not agree with this argument and also suggested that if he had a representative such as a work colleague or union representative he could have been steered in a calmer direction.

The adjudicator decided that “I do not find that any unfairness resulted from the company’s policy to allow him to be represented by a colleague or a union official, and not by a solicitor or an advisor from the Citizens Information Centre.”

Supreme Court Decision: Alan Burns and Another v The Governor of Castlerea Prison and Another

This Supreme Court decision is a vital one to look at when addressing these issues.

In a 2009 decision the Supreme Court set out 6 factors that should be considered whether a solicitor or barrister should be allowed to allow a fair hearing:

  1. The seriousness of the charge and of the potential penalty.
  2. Whether any points of law are likely to arise.
  3. The capacity of a particular prisoner to present his own case.
  4. Procedural difficulty.
  5. The need for reasonable speed in making the adjudication, that
    being an important consideration.
  6. The need for fairness as between prisoners and as between prisoners and prison officers.

Significantly, the Supreme Court also held “I would reiterate that legal representation should be the exception rather than the rule.”

Conclusion

Legal representation in a disciplinary investigation or hearing should be the exception, not the rule, and there is no automatic right to be represented by a legal professional.

The employer can, however, allow a legal professional for tactical reasons-that is, to ensure the later argument of lack of fair procedures and constitutional justice is holed below the waterline.

Adverse Publicity in Employment Cases-Employees, Don’t Make This Mistake

Are you an employee who is thinking about bringing a claim against your employer?

Or maybe you have already brought a claim?

I meet employees frequently and they may come to me before, during, or after a dispute with their employer.

And I see them making many mistakes.

These mistakes can range from bringing the wrong claim to suing the wrong entity as employer to missing the time limit to bring the claim that is misconceived or badly founded from the outset.

One mistake I frequently encounter, though, is the employee’s insistence that the employer will probably settle or roll over by reason of his fear of the ‘adverse publicity’ which the case is bound to generate.

This is a serious mistake because the employee places far too much importance on the threat of ‘bad publicity’.

It is an understandable mistake to make because the employee has a problem that has caused her great anxiety and stress and it has been a large part of her every day life for a considerable amount of time.

And now she is going to finally take action and remedy the wrong done to her.

But the wider world at large has their own individual, personal problems.

They may be big or small ranging from paying the mortgage to buying food or other daily essentials to avoiding the sack to dodging redundancy to the health and welfare of their loved ones to the kids getting on satisfactorily in school to getting good exam results.

And so on.

The list goes on and on. Some people would just call it ‘life’.

These problems may understandably detract from them noticing whether you were treated unlawfully in work or not, and how your claim goes at the WRC.

Quite frankly, other people have their own issues and may not have too much time for your case against your employer. It may not even register on their radar.

Or if it does it is soon forgotten. Tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper.

For this reason your employer may not have as much to fear on the publicity front as you would expect.

Workplace Relations Commission Claims are Private

Virtually all work related claims have to first be brought to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). However, the Workplace Relations Act at section 41 (13) states:

(13) Proceedings under this section before an adjudication officer shall be conducted otherwise than in public.

This means (virtually) all claims are held in private, not public.

Thus, the chances of a tremendous amount of bad publicity arising from the case are minimised.

And to make matters worse from a publicity perspective all decisions of the Workplace Relations Commission when published on their website are anonymised-that is, the identity of the parties is not disclosed and the decisions will have titles like ‘A Worker Versus a Retail Company’ or other nondescript, anonymous titles.

Conclusion

If you bring an employment related claim against your employer you need to weigh up carefully the pros and cons of your case, the potential outcomes, and the cost. These are the factors that you should place most emphasis on when arriving at a decision.

If you lose your case and you appeal to the Labour Court your case will be held ‘in public’ and there may be greater scope to wave the ‘adverse publicity’ stick as a weapon against your employer.

But in looking at your options in a WRC claim my advice is not to overegg the pudding in relation to idea that the employer will be fearful of the tremendous amount of bad publicity surrounding your case.

Because the reality is quite different, apart from some exceptional cases which hit the headlines for obvious reasons unique to that particular case.