Thematic feature - individual labour/employment disputes and the courts

This article examines how individual labour/employment disputes are handled through the courts in Slovakia, as at March 2004.

In March 2004, the EIRO national centres in 24 European countries were asked, in response to a questionnaire, to give a brief overview of their country's system for dealing with individual labour/employment disputes through the courts, along with data on: the volume of cases; the costs; the timeframe; alternatives to going to court; and any current debate on these issues. The Slovakian responses are set out below (along with the questions asked).

System

Please give a brief description of how disputes concerning individual employees' employment and labour rights are handled in your country by courts, tribunals or other official judicial bodies.

Individual labour/employment disputes are resolved through complaints presented by the employee or employer to the civil courts. Before bringing the case, the claimant should try to enforce his or her rights vis-à-vis the defendant. Furthermore, collective agreements may lay down procedures to be followed in the event of a dispute between employee and employer.

Labour disputes are resolved by the civil courts because there are no specific labour courts - though in recent years some larger civil courts have established 'senates' responsible for labour issues. There is also no special legislation that specifically regulates the resolution of individual labour disputes, with such disputes dealt with on the basis of the provisions of the Civil Court Proceedings Order. Under this order, the civil courts deal with and rule on disputes and other legal affairs that arise from civic, labour, family, cooperative and business relationships (if, according to the law, these relationships are not dealt with by other bodies).

The Civil Court Proceedings Order lays down the procedures to be followed by the courts and parties involved in litigation, with the aim that a fair defence of the parties' rights and interests is secured, as well as law enforcement, fair fulfilment of duties and respect of the rights of citizens and other people. The courts should provide clarification to the parties involved regarding their procedural rights and obligations.

In general, individual labour dispute cases are handled by the relevant district court (a court of first instance). The court is obliged to secure for the parties equal opportunities in terms of the enforcement of their rights. Individual people can bring their case in court alone, or they can be represented by an attorney. Since 2002, trade unions have not been able directly to represent employees in court. They now generally do this indirectly by hiring attorneys and paying the employee's legal fees. If the employee wins the litigation, the legal fees are paid by the losing party.

The court proceedings start with a submission by the claimant, which must present relevant written evidence in relation to the dispute. The potential grounds for individual labour disputes are all alleged violations of the legal rights of the employee or employer, as stipulated by the relevant labour legislation. According to the new Labour Code (SK0312103F), employees who claim that they have been discriminated against by an employer, directly or indirectly, on any prohibited grounds can seek to uphold their rights in court.

According to the statistics, the following issues are most frequently dealt with in court cases over individual labour/employment disputes:

  • notice of termination of contract given by the employer to the employee and vice versa;
  • clams of the invalidity of an immediate termination of an employment relationship by the employer or employee;
  • employees' wage claims, including severance payments in the event of dismissal; and
  • compensation for damage caused by the employer or employee.

At present, district court cases related to labour disputes are decided by a single professional judge. According to very recent legal amendments, higher judicial officers and lawyers will also be able to act as judges.

The parties involved in the litigation are obliged to provide evidence that confirm their statements. They have the right to present their opinions as regards the complaint and all evidence submitted. If called, all people are obliged to go to court and act as a witness.

If the scope of the matter allows, it is possible within the preliminary court proceedings to suggest a conciliation process, overseen by the court, which decides on whether to adopt the outcome. Until the final decision is approved by the court, the claimant can fully or partially withdraw the complaint. If relevant, the parties involved can end the litigation in the light of judicial conciliation.

The court's judgment is always announced publicly, along with the reasoning (including a summary of the cases and the court's findings) and details of appeal arrangements. The court can impose a reversion to the state of affairs prior to the act it has found unlawful, or order a situation to be remedied - eg oblige the employer to reinstate with retrospective effect an employee who has been dismissed illegally, or to pay wages owed. Appeals are possible within two weeks of the ruling, to regional/county courts in labour dispute cases. The Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic decides on appeals against these second-instance court decisions.

Complaints may thus be submitted to the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family (Ministerstvo práce, sociálnych vecí a rodiny Slovenskej republiky, MPSVR SR) by any person who believes that their legal rights or interests have been breached, and there is a need for the intervention of a public authority. In recent years, 400 to 480 such complaints have been submitted to the Ministry each year. Since 2001, the National Labour Inspectorate (Národný inšpektorát práce, NIP) has also been authorised to address employee complaints.

With regard to individual labour/employment dispute settlement there are generally no distinctions in terms of whether the employee is employed by a private or state-owned enterprise or by a public institution. However, there are a number of specific procedures for individual disputes involving civil servants.

Number of cases/disputes and costs

How many cases have been dealt with in your legal system by each category of court? Where possible, please provide statistics on the number of disputes in your country each year from 1990 to 2003 (or the latest year for which data are available). Where possible, please provide statistics on costs.

Table 1 below shows the number of individual labour dispute cases closed by the civil courts, by selected issue at dispute, over the 1992-2002 period. It shows a clear trend for the total number of cases closed per year to fall.

Table 1. Number of individual labour dispute cases closed by courts, by selected issue at dispute, 1992-2002
Issue at dispute 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 Total
Notice given by employer 1,044 608 709 713 531 420 481 525 465 541 333 6,370
Notice given by employee 51 75 65 29 42 29 45 18 19 27 25 425
Immediate dismissal by employer 133 76 109 89 454 309 656 422 409 593 221 3,471
Immediate resignation by employee 21 27 33 38 47 58 39 122 75 65 61 586
Wage claims, including severance payments 3,432 1,964 2,348 3,081 3,994 3,280 6,978 7,067 5,113 4,883 2,197 44,337
Compensation for damages 3,934 1,911 1,684 1,460 1,489 1,214 2,316 2,460 1,885 2,390 1,289 22,032
Issues in total* 10,850 9,815 9,774 10,529 10,293 8,074 12,940 11,591 9,058 9,084 4,544 106,552
Cases in total* 7,464 6,505 6,788 7,022 7,514 5,858 3,958 4,691 4,161 3,885 3,447 61,293

* Cases may involve more than one issue.

No information is available on the costs of individual labour dispute cases.

Litigation timeframe

Where possible, please provide statistics on the timeframe within which court cases over individual labour/employment disputes are settled.

Table 2 provides data on how long it took individual labour dispute cases to be closed by the civil courts over the 1990-2002 period. It reveals that the average litigation time has been increasing constantly, with a particularly sharp rise from 2001 to 2002.

Table 2. Individual labour dispute cases closed by courts, by duration of proceedings, 1990-2002
. No. of cases closed Duration of proceedings until completion Average duration of proceedings in months
Up to 6 months 6-12 months 1-2 years Over 2 years
1990 7,208 5,482 1,159 481 86 5.15
1991 7,673 5,309 1,586 661 117 5.83
1992 7,463 4,417 1,857 1,055 134 7.10
1993 6,502 3,647 1,406 1,144 305 8.27
1994 6,788 3,521 1,606 1,339 300 8.08
1995 7,022 3,499 1,558 1,549 416 9.36
1996 7,483 4,070 1,397 1,539 477 8.94
1997 5,838 2,835 1,325 1,278 400 9.65
1998 3,945 1,858 795 697 595 12.76
1999 4,677 2,044 943 878 812 14.05
2000 4,152 1,499 1,041 748 864 15.70
2001 3,877 1,341 814 830 892 17.30
2002 3,444 922 678 764 1,080 21.77

Other means of resolving individual disputes

Is there any kind of legal mechanism forcing or encouraging the two parties (management and employees) to resolve a dispute by prior negotiation? Where there is such a mediation process foreseen, please give details. Is there any evidence that mediation has had an effect on the volume of claims handled by courts? Are there any corporate policies built into the structure of organisations in your country specifically to deal with disputes? How are the employees’ representative bodies involved in the process?

As mentioned above, before an individual labour dispute case is taken to court, the employee concerned is required to make some attempts to settle the dispute, and may make a complaint to his or her manager/supervisor, who is required to respond.

At present, a proposed Act on Mediation, which would allow for the out-of-court resolution of individual disputes through mediators, is going through the legislative process. Its aim is to reduce the number of disputes (especially the simple cases) that are dealt with by the courts. The Confederation of Trade Unions of the Slovak Republic (Konfederácia odborových zväzov Slovenskej republiky, KOZ SR) is interested in the possibility of creating conciliation bodies at workplaces and wants the new law to lay down the role of such bodies.

Debate

Please summarise any current debate on the issue of employment/labour disputes litigated by courts in your country.

Enforcement of the law in general is a frequently discussed topic in Slovakia and also a subject for consultation with the European Commission. In 1997, the government and the tripartite Economic and Social Concertation Council (Rada hospodárskej a sociálnej dohody, RHSD) (SK0307102F) looked at labour dispute proceedings and the institutions providing for justice at work. The Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family recommended the creation of specialised labour courts. A degree of specialisation was subsequently implemented in some courts, especially the larger ones, through the establishment of 'senates' responsible for labour issues. The involvement of social partner representatives in these senates as lay judges was also considered, but this idea had not been implemented because the social partners do not have sufficient capacity. Finally, in order to increase the effectiveness of dispute resolution, the Ministry of Justice (Ministerstvo spravodlivosti Slovenskej republiky, MS SR) suggested that, instead of a senate, a single judge should be in charge of dealing with cases at first-instance level, thus increasing the courts' capacity and speeding up the settlement of labour disputes. This method of dealing with labour disputes is now being implemented in practice.

Trade unions usually provide free of charge consultancy to their members in relation to disputes with employers. Improved law enforcement in the employment arena is a goal of the KOZ SR union confederation. KOZ SR wants the duration of labour dispute cases to be cut, and the effectiveness of litigation to be increased. It is in favour of simplified proceedings and faster litigation. Furthermore, the unions see it as necessary to increase the courts' capacity in order to speed up the process of resolving labour disputes. KOZ SR also calls for creation of specialised labour courts. The unions claim that in practice some employers are reluctant to implement court judgments (in such cases the employee involved can seek official help to have the remedy enforced). A frequent cause of individual labour disputes is that an employer does not provide an employee with the wage for the work done in due time. If it is proved that payment has been delayed on purpose, this is considered as a criminal offence.

According to the trade unions, lengthy litigation and poor enforcement of judgments decrease employees' trust in the courts and in the possibility of defending their rights effectively in court. This opinion seems to be supported by the outcomes of a recent survey conducted by the Research Institute of Labour, Social Affairs and Family (Výskumný ústav práce, sociálnych vecí a rodiny, VÚPSVR) on the issue of gender pay discrimination. According to this survey, only 10% of interviewed women stated that they would claim their rights in court. Almost half of the respondents stated that they would not go to court because they would be afraid, if they lost the case, of paying all the costs arising from the litigation and being dismissed too. Although this survey was not a representative one, its findings underline the reservations of employees about litigation as a way of resolving individual labour disputes.

Employers also see the duration of litigation in individual labour disputes as excessively long. In their view, many individual disputes can be attributed to the poor economic situation of companies. In many cases, employers acknowledge the claims presented by their employees to the court. However, the employer cannot fulfil these claims as it is insolvent or under threat of bankruptcy. Often, these cases relate to pay or compensation related to dismissal. (Ludovít Cziria, Bratislava Centre for Work and Family Studies)

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