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.

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.

Appeals to the Labour Court-What You Should Know

Labour Court Appeals

If you are not satisfied with a decision in the Workplace Relations Commission you may appeal the decision to the Labour Court.

The Labour Court is quasi-judicial and an adversarial forum (Donnelly v Timber Factors Ltd [1991] 1 IR 553). However, administrative tribunals such as the Labour Court are not bound as strictly as the criminal or civil courts in relation to the rules of evidence, including the rule against hearsay.

Section 44, Workplace Relations Act 2015 provides for an Appeal to Labour Court from decision of adjudication officer. The Labour Court can also deal with an appeal from an employer arising from a compliance notice he has received pursuant to section 28, Workplace Relations Act, 2015.

Each case is dealt with by a Division of the Labour Court; a Division comprises a Chairman, an Employer Member, and an Employee Member.

The time limit for an appeal from a decision of an Adjudication Officer is 42 days from the date of the decision. The day of the decision is the first day of the 42 days and time can only be extended in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Labour Court business, unlike WRC hearings, is conducted in public and the Labour Court rules are set out in four parts as follows:

  1. Procedure for appeals of adjudication officer in relation to employment equality and unfair dismissal
  2. Procedure for appeals of Compliance notices served on employers
  3. Procedure for appeals in respect of other employment enactments
  4. The Procedure to be followed at the hearing itself.

The Labour Court rules can be found here.

Appeals re unfair dismissal and employment equality acts

The appeal is commenced by using a standard form and a copy of the Adjudication Officer decision. Three weeks later you must submit your written submission which is then sent to the Respondent.

Respondent then has three weeks to file a replying submission.

Extending time- ‘exceptional circumstances’

The time of 42 days allowed for the appeal can only be extended in exceptional circumstances. Useful cases in relation to what is accepted as exceptional circumstances include:

  • SAP Landscapes Ltd v Gutkin & O’Neill UDD 6 & 7/2016
  • Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board v Igoe PWD 26, 27 & 28/2016
  • Galway & Roscommon Education Training Board v Kenny UDD 24/2016
  • HSE West v Barry UDD 32/2016

Pre-Hearing Witness Statements

Both parties are required to send in pre hearing witness statements at least 7 days in advance of the hearing. These statements should state

  • The name of the witness
  • A summary of the witness’s evidence
  • Copy documents which will be relied upon at the hearing

A De Novo Appeal

The appeal in the Labour Court is de novo; this means the partries start from scratch and the decision of the adjudication officer of the WRC is completely ignored and has no influence on the decision of the Labour Court.

Fitzgibbon v Law Society [2014] IESC 48 makes this clear, and the appeal body is required come to its own conclusions on the evidence available to it.

However, the party appealing must canvas the same claim, not an entirely new one. (See Dawn Country Meats Ltd v Hill DWT 141/2012).

Written submissions

The parties are expected, in their written submissions, set out

  • The facts which are agreed and in issue
  • The legal basis for the submission
  • The remedy sought (in the case of the complainant)
  • Transcript of the decisions/judgments relied upon

In essence, the parties are to set out their case in full and not focus on the adjudication officer’s decision or how he/she conducted the WRC hearing.

The hearing commences with the party bearing the burden of proof reading his submission; the respondent reads his submission and the parties are invited to comment on the other’s submission.

Eacn party then examinses and cross-examines each side’s witnesses and the Court may have questions for the witnesses.

Parties can represent themselves or engage the services of a solicitor/barrister/HR representative, or whoever he chooses.

Adjournments and witness summonses

A party can seek an adjournment in writing in advance of the hearing, after seeking the consent of the other side first.

The Labour Court has the power, pursuant to section 21, Industrial Relations Act, 1946 to summons witnesses if it so decides.

Appeals

A party can appeal a determination of the Labour Court to the High Court on a point of law only.

(The above is a summary of what I learned from a paper delivered by Alan Haugh BL, Deputy Chairman of the Labour Court, at a Law Society CPD Masterclass on 9th March, 2018).

Racehorse Trainer, Aidan O’Brien, Loses Labour Court Appeal Over Working Time of Staff

aidan o brien

The world class racehorse trainer Aidan O’Brien has recently had his problems with Irish employment law. Firstly, the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), and then the Labour Court have found against the Ballydoyle set up.

The background to his problems arise from the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997 (‘OWT’).

The Organisation of Working Time ACt 1997 sets out the law in relation to working time, rest breaks, annual leave, weekly working hours, and so forth. There is an exemption in the act, however, for agricultural workers.

The Workplace Relations Commission, pursuant to section 28 Workplace Relations Act, 2015, had served four compliance notices on O’Brien’s world renowned set up at Ballydoyle, Co. Tipperary. These notices were in respect of working hours of the stable staff and breaches in contravention of the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997. The act, however, makes provision for an exemption from certain working time provisions for workers involved in agriculture.

The question then arose as to whether O’Brien’s employees, being involved in racehorse stables and stud farm activities, were involved in agriculture. The WRC did not agree.

O’Brien’s organisation appealed the decision of the WRC in issuing compliance notices and argued at the Labour Court appeal that they were entitled to the exemption for agriculture workers. It argued that his concern was not bound by the provisions of the OWT Act, 1997 in respect of working time and rest periods by virtue of their involvement in ‘agriculture’.

The WRC argued that the activity of breeding and training racehorses fell outside the definition of agricultural activity as apprehended by the OWT act, and referred to the definition of agriculture set out in Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015. It states:

‘agriculture’ means—

(a) (i) the production of animals, including the production of meat and other animal produce intended for human consumption,

(ii) the sorting and packing of meat and other animal produce, and

(iii) the production, sorting, and packing of crops, including fruit and vegetables, intended for human or animal consumption,

on farm land (within the meaning of section 664 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 ), and

(b) horticulture, including market gardening, garden nurseries and nursery grounds;”

The Labour Court rejected Ballydoyle’s argument and held that the WRC orders were to stand as it found that the business involved fell outside the definition of agriculture. This decision can have serious implications for the bloodstock/racing industry if it is not overturned by the Circuit Court.

It remains to be seen whether O’Brien appeals the decision to the Circuit Court, which he is entitled to do.

UPDATE 25th January, 2018

It has been reported that O’Brien/Ballydoyle have appealed the Labour Court decision to the Circuit Court.