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.

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.

Employers: Don’t Make the Mistake of Looking for ‘Bullet Proof’ Contracts or Waivers

Mick came in to see me last week. He had had enough.

‘Enough is enough’, he barked.

Mick is a small employer. Old fashioned, grim, swarthy.

He had enough of this employment law nonsense. He was looking for a way to ensure that his workers would stop giving him grief, and ‘cop themselves on’.

Or, as he put it, ‘show up and shut up and do what they’re told’.

‘Now? Now, they’re always going on in such a bloody tiresome way about their rights..paternity this, maternity that, force majeure, bereavement leave, unfair dismissal, bullying, harassment, health and safety. In the good old days if a lad came and complained about bullying I’d tell him to grow a pair of balls and sort it out in five minutes at the back of the shed..’

‘Mick, my friend, take a seat.That ship has sailed’, I said.

When he calmed down Mick made it clear he wanted two things:

  1. A “bullet proof” contract of employment
  2. A form or agreement that an employee would sign when he was leaving promising he would not bring any claims against Mick after he was gone.

Bullet Proof Contract

What Mick wanted was a contract that set out exactly what the employee could and couldn’t do, and it was heavily loaded in favour of Mick and the needs of his business.

I had to explain to him that I could help him with that but it would not be bulletproof. I told him that regardless of how he and a future employee might negotiate an agreement, and even if the employee went ahead and signed it, the employee still had legal rights and entitlements, no matter how one sided it was drafted.

Therefore, no matter what was put in the contract, no matter how agreeable (or naive) the new employee was, no matter how keen he was to work for Mick (or anyone), the new employee had statutory rights.

These rights are set out in the statute books in pieces of legislation such as the Unfair Dismissal Acts or the Organisation of Working Time Act or the Redundancy legislation or the Payment of Wages acts.

He also had rights to fair play in raising grievances in the workplace or how any disciplinary procedure might be carried out, I told him. These were set out in statutory instruments. I could see Mick visibly wincing, and the blood draining from his face.

On top of that, I had to tell Mick that employees had rights arising from EU law, common law, and the constitution. I could see Mick visibly perking up when I mentioned “Bunreacht na hÉireann”.

Nevertheless, I had to advise Mick that no matter what way the contract was drafted the employee had protections and rights which were imposed on the employment relationship, whether he liked it or not and whether the employee was agreeable or not.

And he had to just get over it and perhaps improve his relationship with his staff, starting with how he viewed them.

A Leaving the Employment Indemnity/Waiver

He also wanted some sort of a one page, straightforward, easy to understand form which would do two things:

  • Prevent the employee from working for any competitors or starting his own business
  • Promise not to bring any claims against Mick.

I explained to Mick that if he wanted to try to prevent former employees from working for competitors or starting their own business nearby or stealing Mick’s customers or staff he needed to provide for this in the contract of employment. He would need a restrictive covenant which would only be enforceable if it was reasonable.

I had to break the news to him that looking for an employee to sign such a form when he was leaving Mick was too late, and akin to bolting a stable door when the horse was long gone.

As for promising not to bring any claims against Mick, I asked Mick to think about this: ‘why would an employee do that? Why would he give up those rights without some incentive? Would he not be asking, if presented with such a form, what was in it for him?’

In short, if he wanted the employee to waive his rights in respect of claims arising from the employment he’s better get out the cheque book and provide an incentive. Because, otherwise, it would be an act of folly for an employee to sign such a form.

And even if he did it could be overturned and set aside later on as he could claim that he did not know what he was signing and had no legal advice at the time.

Conclusion

Mick learned that the answer to his staff problems was in improving his attitude and approach to his employees. This would lead to a better atmosphere in the workplace, lads taking more care with his equipment and vehicles, a better working relationship, and less chance of claims against him.

And if there were claims against him?

Provided Mick did not ride roughshod over their rights, give them contracts of employment that were fair and lawful, maybe have a staff handbook in the workplace, too, to deal with discipline and grievances and bullying, he would have a far better chance of successfully defending any claims that arose.

Or even make it less likely that claims would be brought once the employee learned the chances of success were not great.

Irish and UK Employment Law-What Are the Main Differences?

uk employment law

There are huge similarities between Irish law and UK law, which is to be expected as the Irish legal system originates from the English legal System. The Irish legal system exists in a common law jurisdiction, as opposed to a civil law jurisdictions like France and other European countries.

Other common law jurisdictions include the legal systems in England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India.

Common law systems place great reliance on previous decisions in Court, which decisions set precedents for principles to be applied in later cases with similar circumstances.

Consequently, Irish employment law and English employment law are strongly comparable.

However, there is differences, too. Let’s take a look:

  • Minimum wage rates are different
  • Rest break entitlements also differ
  • Mandatory pension-mandatory enrolment of an employee in a pension is not the position in Ireland, whereas it is in the UK
  • Statutory sick pay exists in the UK, but there is no statutory sick pay in Ireland (there may be a contractual entitlement, however)
  • Annual leave entitlements are different
  • There is no award upper limit for discrimination in the UK, there is a limit of 2 years’ remuneration in Ireland
  • Minimum notice-there is slight differences, depending on the length of service
  • Redundancy payment entitlements are different-in the UK regard is had for the age of the employee, in Ireland it is calculated on service alone
  • Unfair dismissal-in Ireland you need only 1 year’s service, whereas in the UK you need 2 years’ service to bring a claim
  • Termination payments are taxed differently
  • Whistle blowing-there is no upper limit on the award in the UK, in Ireland the limit is 5 years’ remuneration
  • settlement/compromise agreements-there is no statutory recognition in Ireland, there is in the UK
  • Working time-maximum working week (48 hours) can be opted out of in the UK, but not in Ireland
  • Agency workers in Ireland have protection from no less favourable treatment from day one, whereas in the UK the worker needs to have worked 12 weeks on assignment
  • Collective bargaining-there is no obligation on an Irish employer to recognise the trade union in the workplace for bargaining purposes; in the UK the union can follow a statutory route to seek recognition
  • Status of employment-in Ireland you can be an employee or self employed contractor; in the UK you can be an employee, or self employed, or a worker
  • Employment claims-there is no preliminary case management procedure in Ireland; there is in the UK
  • Injunctions-employees seeking injunctions in Ireland are much more likely to succeed than in a UK court
  • TUPE-in Ireland the employer gets a better deal in relation to the application of TUPE regulations as the triggering of TUPE is more limiting as the transfer must involve the transfer of significant tangible or intangible assets or employees

Conclusion

On balance, I think it is fair to say that UK employers would find the employment law landscape in Ireland a more favourable one to employees than exists in the UK. UK employers may also find a higher level of expectation and empowerment with the Irish employee when it comes to employment rights and the relationship between employer and employee.

How Employers Can Deal With the Problem Employee (and Avoid Costly Employment Law Claims)

 

problem employee

There’s a lad from outside Mullingar who has a peculiar way of making a living.

I’ll tell you about that another time, though.

Because last week he paid me a visit on different business: the common problem of the “problem employee”?

How do you handle this familiar problem?

Many employers come to me with a massive sense of frustration, sometimes anger.

Their emotions range from a sense that employment law in Ireland is loaded in favour of the employee, to fear of taking any action for fear of a costly claim to the WRC or Court from the employee.

What can you do if an employee is misbehaving or demonstrating a bad attitude or failing to perform or is guilty of misconduct or is forever missing days or guilty of persistent poor timekeeping?

Or is a liability or just not right for your organisation?

Or is he on the fiddle?

Small employers, without the benefit of trained HR professionals in their business, are often frozen with fear and indecision.

Quite frankly, they don’t have a clue what to do or what they are allowed to do to handle a problem employee.

Some employers take a metaphorical lump hammer to the problem; others take the approach of “being nice and hoping for the best”.

Neither of these approaches are recommended, quite frankly.

The Options

Firstly, you need to be mindful of a certain critical time period: 12 months’ employment or “one year’s continuous service”, according to the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977.

Generally, an employee can only bring a claim for unfair dismissal when he/she has one year’s continuous service in the job. There are exceptions, for example, a dismissal on a discriminatory ground, or a dismissal because the employee has made a protected disclosure (Protected Disclosures Act, 2014).

By and large, though, the employee needs a year’s service.

So, if an employee is not working out, or is simply not right for your organisation, the contract of employment can be terminated.

Over one year’s service?

If the employee has more than one year’s service it is more problematic for you as an employer. The employee has more protection by virtue of the Unfair Dismissals act, 1977.

It provides that an employee can only be dismissed on specified grounds, provided there are substantial grounds justifying the dismissal :

  • Capability, competence, qualifications
  • Conduct
  • Redundancy
  • Illegality
  • Other substantial grounds

To dismiss on one of these grounds you need to ensure all your ducks are in a row; this article which I have written in the past about how to legally dismiss an employee should help.

You do need, however, to afford fair procedures and natural justice to the employee in terminating the employment as these are constitutional rights.

There is one further situation that arises: frustration of the contract. This could arise where an employee becomes ill or suffers an injury that makes it impossible for him/her to do the work. In other words, the employee is unable to fulfill his/her obligations due to incapacity.

It is said, then, that the contract is at an end as it has been frustrated.

Practical examples

Let’s look at some practical examples.

“Susan” is a secretary/receptionist in a medical practice. Her attitude is poor, her absenteeism rate is high, her work is poor, and worst of all, she has plenty of “sass” going on in her interaction with her boss because her boss is a non national.

If she has over 12 months’ service, the option for you as employer in this situation is to manage the situation professionally. You would use a performance improvement plan and/or the disciplinary procedure to let Susan know that her performance and conduct is unacceptable and will have to improve.

You would ensure to afford her the full benefit of your disciplinary procedure and ensure she is aware that improvements are required and if they are not forthcoming the sanctions set out in the disciplinary procedure will be imposed.

If she does not have 12 months’ service and is on probation either because she is in her first 6 months’ of employment or she has had her probation extended, her employment could be terminated.

“Gianluca” is a part time employee but appears to be angling to bring some sort of claim against you. He has already suffered a minor injury-back problem- as a result of lifting some stuff in the store room.

He’s due back to work shortly after his injury and his solicitor is writing to you about accepting liability for Gianluca’s injury. You have observed him carefully for a couple of years now and you know he is just gagging to quit the job and bring some sort of claim to the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission).

You are, quite frankly, walking on eggshells.

What to do? Firstly, report the personal injury suffered in the workplace to your insurer, if you have not done so already, and let the insurer deal with it.

Secondly, when he does come back, deal with him professionally, just like Susan above. Provided you respect the laws and don’t act unlawfully, you have nothing to get overly anxious about.

You do need to ensure you are giving him his correct rest breaks, holiday and public holiday entitlements, and all other employment obligations.

But once you are satisfied you are doing so you need not worry excessively.

The laws are not completely imbalanced or stacked against you, and you have rights too. It’s a myth to say otherwise.

For example, at its most basic Gianluca needs to perform in accordance with the contract of employment, and follow reasonable directions of you as employer and any of his line managers.

Even the Supreme Court held earlier in 2017 held that every wrong that an employee suffers in the job does not give rise to a claim or a legal cause of action.

So stay calm. The dice is not loaded. There is no need to act on any fleeting impulses you might have to take him into a darkened room and teach him a lesson!

Fianlly, Paul is a blocklaying contractor and Jimbo, one of his lads, is threatening to drive him around the bend. He is frequently missing from work, just texts that morning or the eveing before and says he won’t be in.

At this stage paul is getting suspicious that Jimbo is working for someone else a couple of days a week, as it seems to be the same days he is missing all the time.

In any event, the response from Jim should be the same as for Gianuca and Susan: invoke the disciplinary procedure after having the chat/some informal counselling with Jimbo to let him know the rate of “no shows” is unacceptable.

You will see that all these problems can be resolved in a professional way with no undue concern for claims against you, provided you stay calm and deal with the issues coolly and calmly.

Conclusion

Employment law is fundamentally based on the contract of employment.

If you go back through the centuries there was a “master/servant” relationship. If you fast forward a few hundred years there still exists a huge disparity in power between the employer and employee in negotiating a contract of employment.

Generally, it’s a case of, “take it or leave it”.

So statute law such as the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 and the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997 were introduced by legislators to protect employees and redress the inherent imbalance in equality of arms between employer and employee.

That’s all that’s happened.

So, if you are an employer, stay cool, abide by the laws and you won’t need to worry excessively about the whole shooting match being loaded against you.