Constitutionality of Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Challenged in High Court

Labour Court Appeals

The constitutionality of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and Labour Court framework for adjudicating on employment disputes is being challenged in the High Court.

The Supreme Court has decided on 20th March 2019 that the employee, Mr Zalewski, is entitled to have his challenge heard in the High Court which had previously decided he did not have the necessary locus standi.

The outcome of this case in the High Court could be seismic.

Background

Mr. Zalewski had brought claims to the WRC: one for unfair dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 and one for non-payment of wages under Payment of Wages Act 1991. When Mr. Zalewski attended the adjudication hearing the employer-Buywise Discount Store Limited-sought an adjournment as a witness was not available. No evidence was heard.

When Mr. Zalewski attended with his solicitor for the new hearing date on 13th December 2016 he discovered that a decision had been issued by the adjudication officer. This decision was issued on 16th December 2016.

Judicial review in the High Court

Mr. Zalewski and his solicitor were understandably shocked and disappointed and made a protective appeal to the Labour Court and commenced judicial review proceedings in the High Court.

His judicial review application sought declarations that parts of the Workplace Relations Commission Act 2015, the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977, Payment of Wages Act 1991, and the powers and functions granted to adjudication officers in the Workplace Relations  Commission were unconstitutional as these powers constituted the administration of justice and the Constitution provides certain safeguards for the administration of justice in Ireland.

The WRC then, as part of an attempt to settle these proceedings, offered a new date for the hearing of Mr. Zalewski’s claims. He refused this offer and the WRC then asked the High Court to dismiss his application on the basis that he did not have locus standi.

The High Court agreed and dismissed his judicial review. However, he appealed to the Supreme Court who found that he did have the requisite locus standi and sent it back to the High Court to be heard. That is where the case lies now and the outcome has tremendous significance for anyone involved in employment law.

The employee’s case is that his claims will be dealt with by way of a statutory scheme-the WRC system-which is inconsistent with the constitution and the administration of justice in Ireland.

The first part of the challenge is the constitutional obligation for the administration of justice to be dealt with by a court, based on articles 34 and 37 of the Constitution.

Article 34.1 of the Constitution of Ireland provides:

1 Justice shall be administered in courts established by law by judges appointed in the manner provided by this Constitution, and, save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law, shall be administered in public.

Article 37.1 provides:

1 Nothing in this Constitution shall operate to invalidate the exercise of limited functions and powers of a judicial nature, in matters other than criminal matters, by any person or body of persons duly authorised by law to exercise such functions and powers, notwithstanding that such person or such body of persons is not a judge or a court appointed or established as such under this Constitution.

Article 40.3 provides

3 1° The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen.

The second part of his challenge is to do with the appointment of adjudication officers and the powers that are given to them, the fact that the hearings are in private, and that evidence is not taken on oath.

All of these matters go to the heart of a person’s constitutional right to fair procedures and natural/constitutional justice.

The grounds for the challenge also lie in the absence of any legal requirement of a legal qualification for an adjudication officer to be appointed, no requirement for the taking of sworn evidence during WRC hearings, the hearings being held in private, and the appeal going to a body-the Labour Court-which does not include persons required to be legally qualified.

Read the full Supreme Court decision of 20th March 2019 here.

Outcome

The outcome of this challenge has immense significance for the future of the WRC and the Labour Court and will be watched closely and carefully by employers, employees, HR professionals, and lawyers.

3 Mistakes I Have Observed at the WRC/Labour Court in the Last 10 Months

irish solicitor

I have represented a good deal of clients in the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court over the last 10/12 months. In that time period I have observed what I consider to be 3 significant mistakes at those hearings.

You might learn something from them; I know I have.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

1. Asking too many questions in cross-examination

I acted for a client-an employee-in the WRC who had a great story to tell.

I took him through direct evidence and this was his opportunity to tell his story. My job was to ensure he got to tell all his story in the most sympathetic light to his case.

I did an average job but did leave out two very important questions. These 2 questions were vital pieces of evidence and left a couple of gaps in my client’s evidence.

I need not have worried for too long, however, because the HR representative for the other side (the employer) did my job for me when he was cross examining. He asked the questions that I had forgotten and my client took the opportunity with both hands and plugged the holes in his original evidence.

It is arguable that this was even better than if I had asked the questions because the fact that the answers came out in cross examination may have given the evidence even more credibility.

The big mistake? The HR representative for the other side asking too many questions.

Sometimes the best thing you can do in cross examination is shut up and sit the hell down.

Don’t pay any heed to Rumpole of the Bailey setting a fiendishly clever trap for a witness; don’t mind the cross examination scenes you see in TV crime dramas or Top Gun when Tommy Lee Jones cross examines Tom Cruise.

These pieces of storytelling or theatre are just that and should be recognised as such.

The lesson? Don’t ask questions in cross examination for the sake of hearing your own voice; sometimes the best thing you can do is shut up.

2. A stray document

Another mistake I encountered was being given a bunch of documents by the representative for the other side and finding a document-a letter-which was of immense value to my client’s case and which we did not know existed.

And even if we knew it existed we would not have had any right to it as the other side could have claimed it was entitled to legal privilege.

But here it was amongst a huge bunch of the usual stuff like a diamond in a pigsty.

The value of the document was that it showed the other side-the employer-was told something by a professional advisor, did not act on it and this failure to act ultimately led to my client’s job loss.

This went to the heart of our claim for unfair dismissal.

The mistake? We should never have know of the existence of this document, never mind come into possession.

3. Failing to settle a case

This case involved a number of employment related claims at the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission). But there was also a personal injury claim in being.

The HR representative for the other side (the employer) recognised that our case was a very strong one and the signals from the Adjudicator was that they would be well advised to talk to us with a view to settling. We were well ahead.

We took a break and negotiated for a little bit and there was not a huge difference between us in the end about the money stuff but we did not agree.

The mistake, in my view, was the the HR representative failed to recognised that if the case was settled it would have been on the basis that all claims arising from the employment were settled.

This would have included the Personal Injury claim. This is very significant.

This would have been a great piece of work for his client, the employer, and would have given him a great deal of comfort and certainty. Personal injury claims, if they go against you, can be expensive.

But the HR person seemed unable to recognised this value, or did not have the competence or confidence to do so.

A relatively small amount of extra money would have settled the whole shooting match-that is, all claims arising from the employment, including the personal injury claim.

Instead the hearing went ahead and we won a decent award. And the Personal Injury claim is still in being and will be pursued.

Conclusion

We all make mistakes but the best thing we can do is learn from them, file away the lessons, and move on with confidence that we will not make the same mistakes again.

Hopefully I will avoid these 3 mistakes that I came across in the last 10/12 months.

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.

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.

The Conduct of WRC and Labour Court Hearings-Be Prepared for Anything

If you are representing yourself at the WRC or Labour Court you will need to be prepared to adapt your approach depending on how the hearing is conducted.

Let me explain.

You may have familiarised yourself with the rules for the conduct of Labour Court hearings in Labour Court (Employment Rights Enactments) Rules 2016 which are made pursuant to the Workplace Relations Act, 2015.

You may have read, inter alia, as follows:

53. Except in such cases as the Court considers it convenient to take the written submissions as read, each party shall read their submission and the other party
will be afforded an opportunity to comment on the submission presented by the
other party.

54. Witnesses may give evidence and can be cross-examined by the party opposite
or their representative.

From these two rules you would expect, at a minimum, to be able to

  1. Comment on the submission of the other party
  2. Have your witness(es) give evidence and cross examine the evidence of witnesses from the other party

Being able to test the submission and evidence of the other party is, to my mind, of considerable importance. In any dispute it is vitally important that each sides version of events is tested.

I would have thought it was fundamental to the understanding of the 3 persons comprising the Division of the Labour Court hearing your case, particularly as the hearing is a de novo hearing, for rule 48 states:

48. An appeal shall be by way of a de novo hearing of the complaint to which the appeal relates

So, the Division hearing the case are starting from scratch and forming their own view, unsullied or influenced by the original hearing at the Workplace Relations Commission.

However, the Chairman of the Division has wide discretion for rule 47 states:

47. The conduct of the hearing of an appeal will be regulated by the Chairman of
the division of the Court before which the appeal is being heard
.

Therefore, you may have spent a lot of time closely scrutinising the submission of the other party with a view to picking holes in it and challenging it; you may have spent a lot of time anticipating what evidence the witness(es) for the other side will give; you may have spent a lot of time preparing questions for the cross examination of those witnesses; you may have spent a lot of time preparing questions for your own witness to show his case in the best light.

But it could well transpire that that time is, regrettably, completely wasted.

Because you may not get to do any of those things depending on how the hearing is conducted by the Chairman of the Division.

You will need to be ready for this and the best way to do this might be to have prepared your very best submission in the first instance as this submission (6 copies) has to be sent in to the Labour Court not less than 7 days before the hearing.

And then be ready to adapt to the way the Chairman decides to conduct the hearing.

The same situation can arise in a WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) hearing. I was involved in such a hearing in which I was representing the employer in a constructive dismissal case.

In a constructive dismissal case the burden of proof rests with the employee to prove that he/she had no choice but to leave the job due to the conduct of the employer, and that it was reasonable to do so.

I was looking forward to cross examining the employee and, in particular, asking why she had not availed of the grievance procedure in the workplace, why she had not told the boss that she had a problem, and why she had left in a precipitative fashion without giving my client, the employer, the chance to remedy the problem.

I also wanted to ask other questions such as the role her husband had played in her decision to quit, external, personal pressures that may have lain under the surface and which may have compelled her to make a hasty decision.

When the Adjudicator asked her why she had quit the claimant gulped a couple of times, took out a packet of tissues, tears began to run down her face, then she began to sob and the adjudicator, being a sympathetic, kind lady offered to break up the hearing so the claimant could gather her thoughts and recover.

Needless to say I never got to cross examine the claimant or even put one question to her as the conduct of the hearing is entirely within the discretion of the Adjudicator.

During the break the adjudicator approached me and suggested that the case should be settled. A brief conversation with her persuaded me that this was probably a good idea, even though we had a sound, robust defence. My fear was that we would never get to put forward our defence or cross examine in the way that was necessary and we took the option of a ‘tactical retreat’.

Or as Uriah Heap’s mother in David Copperfield exhorted: ‘Uri, Uri, be humble; make terms’ when the fraudulent, dishonest, deceitful activities of Uriah Heap were exposed by Mr. Wilkins Micawber.

In the circumstances, my client was forced to ‘make terms’ and to settle the case for a small amount of money but that’s not the point; we should still have been allowed to test the evidence and challenge the claimant’s version of events which were, quite frankly, incredible.

Sometimes, though, you need to be able to ‘read the room’ and adapt your strategy.

This may be what you will have to do is you are involved in a WRC or Labour Court hearing. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

New Labour Court Rules, January 2019

New rules for the conduct of Labour Court hearings came into effect in January, 2019. Here is a link to them.