The Workplace Relations Act was passed into law in 2015 and has transformed the manner in which disputes between employers and employees will be dealt with. In the past, there was a confusing array of options as to where a disgruntled employee might take his or her case to seek redress. The legislation seeks to simplify the procedures. Whereas in the past, commonly, disputes were referred to a Rights Commissioner, The Employment Appeals Tribunal, The Equality Tribunal and other bodies with provision for further appeal in certain circumstances through the Courts systems, the new legislation envisages a “one stop shop” with the establishment of the “Workplace Relations Commission”. From now on, all employment disputes will be referred to the Workplace Relations Commission as an entry point into the dispute resolution mechanism. Where appeals arise, those appeals will be to the Labour Court. Decisions of the Labour Court may only be appealed to the High Court on a point of law.
Complaints by an employee should be initiated within 6 months of a dispute arising. There is provision for the period of 6 months to be extended by a further period of 6 months where “reasonable cause” can be shown. However, it is not to be presumed that such extensions will be readily or easily granted and an extension beyond 6 months should be considered as an exception rather than the rule.
The new regime will endeavour to encourage mediation and to encourage the parties to resolve issues directly without entering into a formal adjudication process, if possible. If the employer and employee cannot readily reach an agreement or either party objects to mediation, the Workplace Relations Commission will appoint an Adjudicator to deal with the case. This contrasts with the previous regime where many disputes in the workplace were referred to a division of the Employment Appeals Tribunal consisting of 3 members to hear a case. The former regime was akin to a Court case with the presentation of evidence and cross examination of witnesses. It remains to be seen how the new regime will act in practice. The legislation would seem to allow the Adjudicator adopt an inquisitorial approach rather than the traditional adversarial system between parties, but, overall the process must be informed by the principles of Natural Justice and the necessity for fair procedures to both parties. As before, parties can be represented by Trade Unions, Employers Representatives, Lawyers and certain other parties.
Decisions of Adjudicators will be published on the internet without identifying the parties. However, in the case of an appeal, hearings of the Labour Court will be public and, unless particular circumstances should arise, full details of the parties will be published.
Where a case is commenced by an employee but not pursued, the case may be struck out after a year. A similar provision applies in relation to appeals. An Adjudicator may also strike cases which are deemed frivolous or vexatious.
The new legislation makes it a criminal offences for an employer to fail to pay compensation to an employee. A conviction can result in a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or both.
The new legislation and regime sits on a significant body of existing employment legislation which to a large extent remains unchanged. The stream lining of the system and the success of the changes made will depend on the provision of adequate resources and support to the personnel appointed to operate the new system.