How to Make a Decision to Bring an Employment Claim to WRC or Not

Are you torn between bringing a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) or walking away from the issue?

I meet employees on a weekly basis who face this decision. On the one hand they feel they have been treated unfairly, and perhaps unlawfully, in the workplace. But they face the tough decision to submit a claim to the WRC or even commence legal proceedings in the civil courts or walking away, forgetting about it, and putting the difficulty behind them.

It is not an easy decision.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors you will need to consider.

Justice

Many employees speak about getting justice and wanting to do something about what they see as the essential unfairness of how they have been treated by the employer. This appears to be a noble, principled position to adopt.

But if it involves a claim which will inevitably involve time, stress, and legal costs and the potential financial payback does not exceed the costs incurred it may be prudent to have a second think about bringing the claim.

Let me give you a simple example.

Let’s assume you have been dismissed from your job and you believe you have a strong case for unfair dismissal and you are anxious to pursue it.

Let’s assume, too, that you have been successful in getting a new job quickly after the termination of the old one and you have only been out of work for 3 weeks.

The Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 provides that if you succeed in your claim to the WRC the compensation you can be awarded is “financial loss”. Financial loss is essentially loss of pay or remuneration as a result of your sacking.

But your financial loss, assuming you start the new job 3 weeks later, is only 3 weeks’ wages.

Now, let’s assume you were taking home €500 per week, then your loss is €1,500. In these circumstances, if you are successful the WRC adjudicator can award you a maximum of 1 month’s salary which is approximately €2,000.

So, you might win €2,000 if you succeed but you will have to pay your own legal costs and it is extremely unlikely that your legal costs will not comfortably exceed €2,000. And then you must consider the stress of putting yourself through the whole process and the possibility that you will lose, in which case you are now out of pocket and your sense of unfairness and injustice has just increased significantly.

Now consider you do win but the employer has deep pockets and appeals the WRC decision to the Labour Court. You will have more legal costs and there is the possibility of your win at the WRC being overturned and you being further out of pocket.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to put you off, you may be perfectly happy to pursue your claim on a point of principle and let the cards fall where they may. There may well be an aspect of clearing or vindicating your good name and that is worth fighting for.

But you do need to think through the process from start to finish and weigh up the pros and cons and look at the potential outcomes.

For example, your case would be a completely different one if you were out of work for 6 months and had tried your best to get a new job. In this situation your financial loss will be 6 months’ wages so the financial analysis of your potential claim is radically different. To put it bluntly, it may well be worth a punt.

Justice v financial reality

You may have to weigh the justice or principle of your case against the financial reality and decide whether to pursue the matter or not. This can only be done by a cold headed analysis of the potential claims you have, the possible outcomes and remedies, and the probability of each outcome.

Conclusion

Bringing a claim to the WRC, Labour Court, or civil courts is an easy thing to do. But before you decided to do so you should consider the overall situation, what the potential outcomes might be, and the various steps along the way to the final conclusion, not just the first, easy step of submitting a claim.

You need to weigh it up like the moves in a chess game. Thinking only 1 move ahead is bound to end in disaster.

To assist with your decision, and to ensure you know what factors to consider, it’s a smart idea to get professional advice.

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.

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.

Reinstatement of Dismissed Employee-A Warning for Employers

unfair dismissal-1

Are you an employer?

If you have dismissed an employee you are almost certainly aware that a successful claim against you by your former employee can lead to an award of compensation of up to 2 years’ salary.

But did you know that there are 2 other remedies that can be awarded if the employee’s claim succeeds?

Yes, the Workplace Relations Commission adjudicator, in an unfair dismissal hearing, can also order that the employee be reinstated or reengaged. This can be the worst possible outcome for some employers.

It is not a frequent outcome to an unfair dismissal claim and more often than not the employee will only tick the box on the WRC claim form seeking compensation. If this is the case then the adjudicator has no decision to make once he decides the employee has been unfairly dismissed.

But sometimes an employee will seek reinstatement to their old position. He may do this for tactical reasons-for example, it may encourage the employer to attempt to settle the claim before it goes to a hearing at WRC for fear of losing.

On other occasions, however, by virtue of the nature of the industry or specialised nature of the job, the employment prospects for the dismissed employee may be poor. If this is the case the employee may be perfectly happy to resume his old job, or an alternative position in the same organisation, which can be an equally bad result for the employer, who would be happy to never see the employee again.

This can cause a major headache for the employer who will doubtless argue that the relationship between employer and employee has broken down and there is a lack of trust and confidence between the parties and they should not be forced into resuming the old relationship.

This is a widely used and accepted argument. But it’s not always successful.

A Banker v A Bank Adj ADJ-00001266

The WRC adjudicator, on 28th March, 2018, made an order for re-instatement in this case involving a banker versus his former employer, a bank. The banker, a trader, was dismissed for gross misconduct and brought a claim for unfair dismissal.

Without going into all the details (there is a link below for full details of the decision) the decision of the adjudicator, Mr. Kevin Baneham, was that the unfair dismissal claim was to succeed due to the imperfections and flaws in the bank’s disciplinary procedure which led to the dismissal. The next step to be decided was the appropriate redress for the employee.

The redress sought by the banker, once he succeeded in his claim, was re-instatement. The adjudicator agreed that re-instatement and re-engagement were possible awards as the banker was a popular employee whose performance appraisals were good and was a good team player.

Mutual trust and confidence/disharmony

The bank, however, argued that re-instatement was not appropriate as it could lead to a poor relationship between the parties in the future, there would inevitably be disharmony, and the relationship of mutual trust and confidence between the parties was shattered. The adjudicator did not agree.

The adjudicator had regard for the fact that the banker operated in a strictly regulated environment and industry and a dismissal would possibly be fatal to obtaining alternative employment in such an industry, given the relatively limited options. For this reason the adjudicator ordered that the employee be re-instated as it was ‘just and equitable in this case’.

For the reasons provided in this report, I find that the complaint of unfair dismissal is well founded and, pursuant to section 7(1)(a) of the Unfair Dismissals Acts, I order the re-instatement by the respondent of the complainant in the position which he held immediately before his dismissal on the terms and conditions on which he was employed immediately before his dismissal together with a term that the re-instatement shall be deemed to have commenced on the day of the dismissal.

You can read the full decision in this case here: ADJ-00001266

Lessons for employers and employees

If you are an employer ensure you or your advisor checks the WRC complaint form to see if the redress sought by the employee includes re-instatement or re-engagement.

If you are an employee you may consider nominating those options as redress you are seeking as it may put some pressure on your former employer to settle the case before it goes to hearing, for fear you will win and an order for re-instatement is made.

The Essential Procedures for Pursuing Your Claim at the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission)

Since the introduction of the Workplace Relations Act, 2015 a new system of adjudicating employment complaints and disputes was introduced. The new system is a simpler one and did away with the Rights Commissioner and Employment Appeals Tribunal service and was replaced by a WRC Adjudication in the Workplace Relations Commission.

The Workplace Relations Commission Complaint Form

The starting point for your claim is the WRC complaint form. (You can access the form on this page.)

If you have a complaint about an employment or equality right, or have a grievance under industrial relations legislation you must use the Workplace Relations Commission Complaint Form. (I have previously written an article about how to bring a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission).

The complaint must be made within 6 months of the breach of your right, although the Workplace Relations Commission Adjudicator can extend this time to 12 months where there is reasonable cause shown for the delay. What is reasonable cause will be decided by the Adjudicator.

The WRC will copy all correspondence between the parties who are called the “complainant” and “respondent”. The WRC have a mediation service which will be offered to the parties in suitable cases.

This may simply involve a phone call from the WRC to the parties to see if they can broker a deal between the parties. If the mediator/WRC employee is unsuccessful the case will go ahead for adjudication.

Statements from the Complainant

In a claim for constructive dismissal, or an equality based claim, the complainant must submit a clear statement setting out the details of the complaint.

In all other unfair dismissal cases the respondent is obliged to provide a clear statement within 21 days of the request from WRC.

If this procedure is not complied with the hearing will still go ahead but the adjudication officer may draw an inference(s) from the failure.

In an employment equality case the complainant must set out in detail the facts from which discrimination can be shown or inferred.

In a constructive dismissal case the complainant should set out as much detail as possible on the WRC complaint form, including any grievances raised, investigations carried out etc.

In other unfair dismissal cases the respondent must set out in his statement the facts leading to the dismissal, including any disciplinary hearings, appeals, legal points etc.

Other Employment and Equality Cases

If a respondent intends relying on statutory records in his defence these should be sent to the WRC prior to the hearing. Any other points the respondent wishes to make-for example in relation to a legal point or the wrong employer being named-should be raised within 21 days of receipt of the complaint from the WRC.

WRC Hearing

Both parties will then be contacted with a date for the hearing, and asked to advise of any special requirements they have, for example, an interpreter. A postponement will only be given in exceptional circumstances, and the request must be made in writing to the WRC with an explanation. Consent of the other party would be useful, too.

It is up to the parties to ensure that the WRC has all relevant documentation prior to the hearing and that witnesses, if any, are available for the day.

Conduct of the Hearing

My experience of the way the hearing is held is that it can vary, depending on the particular WRC adjudicator.

Nevertheless, the adjudicator will indicate how he/she wants to conduct it and he/she will

  • Ask questions of any party or witness
  • Allow each party to question the other party and any witness
  • Ensure fair procedures and natural justice

The WRC hearing is in private, so is not open to the public or media.

The written decision is supposed to issue within 28 days of the hearing with the parties and witnesses anonymised.

Update August, 2017

The WRC have issued, at the end of August, 2017, updated guidelines about the conduct of WRC hearings.

You can read these guidelines here.

Appeal and Enforcement

The decision can be appealed within 42 days to the Labour Court and the decision can be enforced through the District Court after 42 days if no appeal is lodged.

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