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.

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.

Adverse Publicity in Employment Cases-Employees, Don’t Make This Mistake

Are you an employee who is thinking about bringing a claim against your employer?

Or maybe you have already brought a claim?

I meet employees frequently and they may come to me before, during, or after a dispute with their employer.

And I see them making many mistakes.

These mistakes can range from bringing the wrong claim to suing the wrong entity as employer to missing the time limit to bring the claim that is misconceived or badly founded from the outset.

One mistake I frequently encounter, though, is the employee’s insistence that the employer will probably settle or roll over by reason of his fear of the ‘adverse publicity’ which the case is bound to generate.

This is a serious mistake because the employee places far too much importance on the threat of ‘bad publicity’.

It is an understandable mistake to make because the employee has a problem that has caused her great anxiety and stress and it has been a large part of her every day life for a considerable amount of time.

And now she is going to finally take action and remedy the wrong done to her.

But the wider world at large has their own individual, personal problems.

They may be big or small ranging from paying the mortgage to buying food or other daily essentials to avoiding the sack to dodging redundancy to the health and welfare of their loved ones to the kids getting on satisfactorily in school to getting good exam results.

And so on.

The list goes on and on. Some people would just call it ‘life’.

These problems may understandably detract from them noticing whether you were treated unlawfully in work or not, and how your claim goes at the WRC.

Quite frankly, other people have their own issues and may not have too much time for your case against your employer. It may not even register on their radar.

Or if it does it is soon forgotten. Tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper.

For this reason your employer may not have as much to fear on the publicity front as you would expect.

Workplace Relations Commission Claims are Private

Virtually all work related claims have to first be brought to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). However, the Workplace Relations Act at section 41 (13) states:

(13) Proceedings under this section before an adjudication officer shall be conducted otherwise than in public.

This means (virtually) all claims are held in private, not public.

Thus, the chances of a tremendous amount of bad publicity arising from the case are minimised.

And to make matters worse from a publicity perspective all decisions of the Workplace Relations Commission when published on their website are anonymised-that is, the identity of the parties is not disclosed and the decisions will have titles like ‘A Worker Versus a Retail Company’ or other nondescript, anonymous titles.

Conclusion

If you bring an employment related claim against your employer you need to weigh up carefully the pros and cons of your case, the potential outcomes, and the cost. These are the factors that you should place most emphasis on when arriving at a decision.

If you lose your case and you appeal to the Labour Court your case will be held ‘in public’ and there may be greater scope to wave the ‘adverse publicity’ stick as a weapon against your employer.

But in looking at your options in a WRC claim my advice is not to overegg the pudding in relation to idea that the employer will be fearful of the tremendous amount of bad publicity surrounding your case.

Because the reality is quite different, apart from some exceptional cases which hit the headlines for obvious reasons unique to that particular case.

The Avoidable Fears and Panic of Small Employers-3 Illustrative Cases

Are you an employer? Have you been stressed and anxious about an employment issue recently?

I have met a number of employers in the last year or so and I had a great deal of sympathy for them.

Let me explain.

It’s very easy for you as an employer to make mistakes in relation to your employment law obligations. One of the obvious reasons for this is the massive body of employment law legislation on the statute books.

If you throw in EU directives and regulations and statutory instruments and recommended workplace policies/procedures and common law and decided cases and the constitution you would be forgiven for not knowing whether you were coming or going when an employee makes allegations or claims against you.

I have recently encountered a number of cases where employers eventually contacted me for advice and had they contacted a solicitor earlier in the day they could have saved themselves a lot of money, anxiety, and stress.

Referring a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission

The first case involved a small family owned business who were, like most small business owners, flat out doing what they did: making stuff and selling it. Out of the blue they received communication from a trade union on behalf of a long standing employee. The letter set out a number of grievances going back many years and demanded a meeting with the trade union official and their member employee.

The employer, acting in good faith and trying to ‘do the right thing’, agreed and a number of meetings were arranged. These meetings were only moderately successful and involved the employee complaining about many issues, mostly trivial matters frankly, going back many years.

A number of meetings took place involving management of the company and the trade union official and employee. These meetings were time consuming and necessitated the preparation and issuing of minutes and the focusing of valuable management time.

Ultimately the meetings failed to resolve the issues and the employee, with the assistance of the trade union, submitted a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission. Once the employer received the formal letter from the WRC advising of the complaint he immediately panicked and embarked on another round of meetings to try to resolve the issues.

Schedules had to be arranged to facilitate all concerned and ultimately proved to be a waste of time as the employee was still not satisfied.

This whole episode caused great anxiety and stress to the owners of this small business who were anxious from the outset to deal with the problem fairly and in accordance with the law.

What the employer could have done

Firstly, the employer should have obtained professional advice.

If he did he would almost certainly have been told that the issues raised by the employee were grievances or complaints but not breaches of the employee’s rights. Therefore nothing unlawful had been done and there was no cause for panic.

Secondly, the employer could have given the employee a copy of the staff handbook and directed his attention to the grievance procedure in the handbook and told him he was obliged to use the internal grievance procedure to try to ventilate his complaints and have them dealt with.

He would also have been told that the outcome of the grievance procedure could be appealed if the employee was still not happy but ultimately the decision of that appeal was final.

Thirdly, if the employer sought professional advice early he should have been told that the complaint that was submitted to the WRC was a ‘trade dispute’ under the Industrial Relations Act, 1969 and the employer could simply refuse to have it investigated by the WRC by ticking a box on the letter he had received from the WRC.

A lot of stress and anxiety, and expenditure of management resources, would have been avoided, not to mention money saved.

Alleged breach of contract

The second case involved an employee going to a solicitor and making a wide number of allegations about non payment of wages for extra hours allegedly worked, holiday entitlements, public holidays, failure to pay minimum wage, a stress related injury as a consequence of the workplace, and so on.

The threatened legal action contained in the solicitor’s letter on behalf of the employee covered all of the above issues going back many years and demanded a significant payment to ‘settle the matter and all claims arising from the employment’.

It was a real ‘mixum gatherum’ of a demand letter and caused the recipient small business owner a great deal of anxiety and stress. She was an elderly lady who had employed this employee for over thirty years and in addition to the stress and worry at receiving such a letter was also personally disappointed on a human level for she felt she had been very fair with this employee for three decades and was taken aback to see the relationship go downhill.

The small business owner, an elderly lady who has retired from the business which was now run by her son, was incredibly upset by the whole affair.

The employee who was making this claim was at an age when many people would consider retiring and it appeared that this claim may have been one motivated by a desire to get recognition for the years of service, one way or the other.

On the face of it the demand by the employee for an eye watering amount of money was intensely worrying. However, when the issues and claims were stripped down to their essence the situation was not nearly as bad as first appeared.

Firstly, I explained that even though the employee was claiming a stress/psychological injury as a result of the situation in the workplace it is very difficult to successfully succeed with such a claim. I told her son that the employee would need to prove a number of things:

  1. That he had suffered an identifiable psychiatric/psychological injury
  2. That the injury suffered was as a result of the negligence of the employer
  3. That the injury was forseeable and the employer had failed to act as a reasonable employer would.

In other words if the employee had only suffered ‘ordinary stress’ and not a recognised psychiatric injury he would be unlikely to succeed with a personal injury claim. Courts recognised that work is generally a cause of stress. It is not play or entertainment or recreation.

Moreover, bringing a personal injury claim would require expensive medical reports and take quite a while to get to court for hearing and incur significant legal costs with an uncertain outcome thus leaving the employee with a touch decision to make.

In short when the rubber hit the road this ‘stress’ claim may not even get off the ground.

With regard to the other claims concerning holiday pay, public holiday entitlements, or non payment of wages, for example, these would need to be submitted to the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) within 6 months of the alleged breach of the relevant act.

Thus, the WRC would not be able to deal with the entire value of his claim, assuming there was merit in it, as he would be ‘out of time’ for the bulk of what he was claiming.

This six months rule would not apply if he sued for breach of contract in the Civil courts and he could go back 6 years. However, this would involve legal proceedings for breach of contract in the civil Courts and with the amounts of money involved it may not actually be worth the risk in the end.

Yes, if he won he would almost certainly get his legal costs awarded by the Court, however if the claim was a relatively small one would it be worth it? Would he have the evidence to support all aspects of his claim? Would the employer have a good defence and/or better records? And he would be statute barred in respect of the parts of his claim which were over 6 years old.

Therefore when this particular claim, which commenced with a demand for an eye watering sum of money from the employer, was stripped down to its bare essentials it was not nearly as worrying or stressful for the employer.

Nor an attractive money pot for the employee.

Unfair dismissal

Another employer contacted me in a lather of sweat about an unfair dismissal claim that is coming up. She checked online and discovered that the potential award in an unfair dismissal claim is up to 2 years’ salary.

However, the legislation allows the award of financial loss to a maximum of 2 years’ salary and this level of award is extremely rare.

In her particular case, however, the employee had got a new job within 1 month of the dismissal. Therefore the maximum financial exposure for this claim was 1 month’s salary.

If she calculated how much this would amount to, and the fact that she could put up some sort of defence to the claim when the hearing was held, she would have seen that it was not something that should cause a great deal of anxiety.

And she could always try to settle it in advance of the hearing and avoid the time and cost involved in attending a WRC hearing, especially if she wanted to have legal representation. I would have had to advise her, however, that the cost of defending the case using a solicitor might actually exceed the potential award to the employee.

So, if she wanted to defend it she could consider doing it herself and taking her chances.

Normally I would not recommend this approach but if an employer has a potential exposure for a small award that is not likely to exceed the cost of legal representation then I would advise her to this effect and let her decide.

Conclusion

You will see from these three examples that massive fear and worry can be caused to decent employers if they do not obtain sound professional advice from the outset.

Yes, employers must afford employment rights to their employees and treat them decently, with respect, and lawfully. And if they don’t they will be brought to account. Quite right, too.

But unnecessary fear or stress to employers caused by bad or no advice can be avoided if they seek professional advice early in the day from someone who is familiar with the ins and outs of employment law in Ireland.

Otherwise they will experience worry and anxiety that may be wildly out of proportion to their potential exposure in the claim(s) they are threatened with.






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