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What has been described as a “landmark ruling” by the Supreme Court earlier in the month will have impact on how the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) hears cases brought before it. Derek McKay, Managing Director of Adare Human Resource Management explains the ruling and what it will mean for employers who find themselves defending cases in the WRC.
In summary, the Supreme Court ruled that future hearings at the WRC will have to be held in public and witnesses will have to swear an oath ahead of giving evidence. The panel of judges struck out a challenge to the power of the WRC to adjudicate disputes between employers and employees as being unconstitutional.
The case came about when lawyers for an employee who claimed he was unfairly dismissed from Buywise Discount Stores Ltd, owners of a local Costcutter shop, argued that part of the Workplace Relations Act 2015 was unconstitutional. They argued that when the WRC made a ruling on a workplace dispute, it was administering justice, a power only given to courts and judges as per Article 34 of the Constitution.
While the Supreme Court agreed, it ruled that the WRC was only exercising limited jurisdiction, allowed under Article 37 of the Constitution. It pointed out that the decisions of the WRC adjudication officers are limited to employment law issues, which can be appealed to The Labour Court and the High Court.
The panel of judges concluded that the “WRC is exercising limited powers and functions of judicial nature, which exercise of power is therefore covered by Article 37 and does not, therefore, offend the Constitution”. The Court stated that as a result, they do not accept that the blanket ban on hearings before the WRC is justified.
Two aspects deemed unconstitutional
However, the Court stated that some of the questions raised by the complainant’s senior counsel over the WRC’s procedures were justified and that two aspects of the Workplace Relations Act were incompatible with the Constitution. This means that while the WRC can continue to do its job, amendments will be needed to the legislation to ensure its constitutionality. These included the lack of provision for the administration of oath and that hearings were not given in public.
The Supreme Court also dismissed suggestions that only legally trained people could carry out the duties of the WRC.
Government has committed that it will act quickly to ensure the WRC can continue to discharge its function and is drafting legislation as a matter of urgency. However, this may lead to some delays until the amendments are finalised.
The WRC has stated that hearings will be heard in public and as a result, decisions made by its adjudicators will be published including the names of the parties involved. In this regard, a complainant may decide not to proceed with a complaint or the parties may settle or seek mediation, therefore avoid a public hearing.
Given the current restrictions, the WRC will continue to hear cases remotely. In normal circumstances, members of the public and media would be allowed attend hearings now. However, given the situation, and the fact that hearings are now to be heard in public, people can send a request to attend remotely.
What does this mean from a practical point of view?
Given the hearings can be held publicly, it will not be something that employers would necessarily like given the potential harm to corporate reputations; so, this could play into employees’ hands somewhat.
Swearing an oath in and of itself will not necessarily cause an issue, however if evidence given under oath is intentionally wrong, there may be legal consequences.
It was also reassuring that adjudication officers do not have to be legal professionals as this would cause an issue with the number of officers available, resulting in further backlogs
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