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.
Supreme Court Appeal
This case was appealed to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court arrived at the same decision as the Court of Appeal, by way of a slightly different route, and decided that there was no entitlement to be legally represented at a disciplinary hearing about alleged misappropriation of property.
In summary the Supreme Court held
The applicant is entitled by contract to have a fellow employee assist him at the disciplinary hearing, or to be represented by a trade union official. By contract, no other or outside individual may represent him.
Read the full Supreme Court decision here (11th November 2019).