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.

2 Surprising Employment Hearing Stories That Should Make You Think Twice About Representation

employment-hearing-representation

Stunned.

I was absolutely flummoxed.

I couldn’t believe my luck.

It was the morning of an EAT hearing and I was there early to speak to my client. My client was the employer and the claim against him was brought by a former employee for constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal is a difficult case to win. But on this occasion I was worried because the circumstances which led to the employee walking out and quitting the job did not reflect well on my client.

Far from it.

In fact, I was convinced the employee would receive a great degree of sympathy from the EAT, and would probably win his case.

I had explained this to the client, and suggested settling the case would be a good course of action to embark upon, if we got the chance.

I had told him to bring the cheque book, too, and he was ready to settle it.

We had a figure in mind, and it was correctly based on the financial loss incurred by the employee since leaving the job. He had managed to find a new job but he still had 6 months’ or so of unemployment, and if he was successful this was what he would win, at the very least.

In calculating his financial loss, to which he would be entitled, you disregard any social welfare he would have received during the time out of work.

So, if the lad was on €600 per week and he was out of work for 6 months (26 weeks) his financial loss would be approximately €15,600. (See financial loss calculation in unfair dismissal cases)

Our settlement offer figure was based on this calculation.

I approached the other side and approached the legal professional representing the employee. After introducing myself and exchanging pleasantries I asked him what his client’s loss was, knowing full well what it was, and what his client would take.

I was amazed at the reply, and struggled to keep a straight face. He estimated the loss at around €10,000.

I asked him how he calculated that figure.

He replied that his client had received approximately €5,200 from the Department of Social Protection, and he subtracted this figure from €15,600 and arrived at the €10,000 figure.

I said I would speak to my client, and see could he stretch to this.

Naturally my client was delighted because we had just saved approximately €5,000, and settled the case in about 5 minutes flat. It was a stroke of good luck for my client, because he was ready to pay €15,000.

Unfortunately for the employee his representative made a costly mistake in calculating his financial loss. I can only presume that the representative did not do much employment law in his daily work.

 

Some months later I was involved in another case-this time at the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission)-and acting for the employer again. On the other side were the employee and her solicitor.

The employee had a number of complaints against my client, her former employer.

I instructed counsel in this case and we were fully prepared to fight the case and each and every claim in the complaint. However, we also had a preliminary argument before the hearing commenced at all.

This was that the complaint was made outside the 6 months’ time limit provided, and therefore the WRC adjudicator simply did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.

When the Adjudicator walked in to deal with the case he said he had a few questions to ask of the complainant and her solicitor.

He immediately honed in on the time limit question and decided, without any submission from our side, that he simply did not have jurisdiction to hear the claim as it was out of time.

That was it. It was over, and the case was thrown out in a matter of a minute.

 

Conclusion

You have a number of choices when it comes to bringing a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

You can run the case yourself, or you can get a HR person to represent you.

Or you can get a solicitor, or a solicitor who does quite a bit of employment law.