Ireland: Workplace Relations Commission moves closer to establishment

Ireland's new Workplace Relations Bill establishes a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) which will subsume the functions of the Labour Relations Commission, National Employment Rights Authority, Equality Tribunal and Employment Appeals Tribunal. The WRC will deal with complaints at first instance, and an expanded Labour Court will deal with cases on appeal from the WRC.

New dispute resolution system

The Workplace Relations Bill, which creates the new Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) alongside a revamped Labour Court, remains on course for full establishment in 2015.

The new dispute resolution system will be made up of two bodies, the WRC, which will deal with complaints at first instance, and the Labour Court, which will deal with appeals and continue with its current industrial relations functions, acting as the traditional ‘court of last resort’.

This twin-track approach will see the functions of the Labour Relations Commission, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal subsumed into the WRC. The WRC will deal with workplace complaints in the first instance, with a reconfigured Labour Court to deal with all cases on appeal from the WRC.

The Labour Court, as the single appellate body, will expand its divisions from three to four. It will also add two deputy chair positions and two ordinary member positions to handle the extra caseload.

Legacy cases

A crossover period will be needed. For example, cases that have come before the Employment Appeals Tribunal prior to the formal establishment of the WRC will be heard by the old Tribunal. All such legacy cases will have to be heard in this way until none remain.

New claims at first instance are to be heard in private by a single adjudication officer of the WRC, although all decisions will be published. These formal decisions can be appealed to the Labour Court, but the Court’s decisions can only be appealed to the High Court on a point of law.

The existing functions of the Labour Relations Commission, which include the crucial industrial relations functions of conciliation, mediation and advice, will also migrate to the WRC. The WRC will have a new director-general who will be responsible for all operations of the new body.

Enforcement

The WRC’s inspectorate functions will be enhanced and there will be new procedures for the enforcement of awards of an adjudication officer, or of the Labour Court, through the District Court.

There will be a time limit of six months on the referral of a dispute under employment legislation, but this may be extended to 12 months where 'reasonable cause' is shown.

‘No charge'

The current ‘no charge’ policy will remain in place. However, the Minister for Jobs and Enterprise, Richard Bruton, has indicated that those who appeal a WRC decision to the Labour Court, but who did not attend the original WRC hearing, must pay a fee of €300 when lodging an appeal.

This continuation of the traditional ‘no charge’ policy is in keeping with the intention of the reform programme to ‘provide for an improved service in terms of cost efficiency and user-friendliness for the users of the service’.

The main employers' body, Ibec, would have liked to see a modest fee. According to Maeve McElwee, Ibec's Head of IR/HR Operations, this would:

...bring employment law claims in line with claims in other forums like the small claims and civil courts [and] reduce the likelihood of unnecessary, ancillary and perhaps frivolous or vexatious claims from being added to the complaint form which now covers all pieces of legislation on the one form.

Public hearings

As is the case at present, all Labour Court cases of interest (that is, industrial relations cases) will be in private – at first instance and on appeal. Only rights-based appeals at the Labour Court will be held in public. All Labour Court decisions, however, will be published on the WRC website.

In relation to WRC adjudication, Mr Bruton said that:

...private hearings are not contrary to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The vast majority of employees and employers do not want the details of their relationship, or the personal details which arise in the course of a hearing, aired in public. There does not appear to be any great demand for public hearings from employers or employees.

He argued that the obligation on the State under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU is satisfied by having both the WRC and Labour Court subject to supervision by the High Court through a judicial review. This is supported by the Attorney General, the minister said.

Among important proposed amendments put forward by a parliamentary select committee in November 2014 is a change to the description of the powers of an adjudication officer under the WRC. A complainant may, in proceedings before an adjudication officer 'be accompanied and represented' by a trade union official, a practising barrister or solicitor, or any person with the permission of the adjudication officer or the Labour Court.

Critiques

Consultant and former Head of Industrial Relations at Ibec, Brendan McGinty, has claimed there is a lack of balance between disputes of rights and disputes of interest in the Workplace Relations Bill. Essentially, he fears there could be a diminution of traditional industrial relations solutions within the broader dispute resolution system. 

Meanwhile, a former leading trade union official, Noel Dowling – currently a member of the Employment Appeals Tribunal – has claimed that the 'little person' may fall victim to a pincer movement of the employers' so-called ‘divine right to hire and fire’ and the traditional trade union 'preoccupation with the collective versus the individual'.

Mr Dowling voiced his concerns about the new tribunal's private hearings. Writing in the independent weekly Industrial Relations News, he said:

Despite the constant and universal demand for greater openness and transparency from our public institutions, the media seems to have missed (or ignored) the fact that all unfair dismissals (first instance) claims will now be heard behind closed doors. There is agreement amongst all of the political parties that ‘These things are best dealt with in private’. No explanation is proffered as to why this might be so.

Mr Bruton strongly defended the reforms. He said that the adjudication officers will be required to conduct cases in accordance with the principles of consultation and natural justice and that this obligation 'will include affording the right to cross-examine'.

Labour Court Chair Kevin Duffy has said that the WRC will be 'profoundly impacted' by the 'revolutionary developments' introduced by the new bill (471 KB PDF).

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