Everyone is aware of the institutional reforms envisaged under the new system with the Workplace Relations Commission (the “WRC”) hearing all complaints in the first instance and the appellant function of the Employment Appeals Tribunal being delegated to the Labour Court. However, there are a number of other reforms that require some attention.
What else is envisaged?
‘Reasonable cause’ for all
The extension of time for submitting claims will be standardised. It is proposed that the time limit for submitting any employment claim will now be six months extendable to 12 months, where the adjudication officer is satisfied that the failure to lodge the claim within the initial six month period was due to ‘reasonable cause’.
The streamlining of the extension of time is welcomed by all, as currently it differs across the various pieces of employment law legislation. For example, under the Unfair Dismissals Acts time can be extended for up to a further six months if ‘exceptional circumstances’ existed to prevent the complainant lodging his/her claim. Whereas, under the Parental Leave Acts, time can be extended up to a further six weeks after the initial six month period if the Rights Commissioner considers it ‘reasonable’ to do so.
One concern for employers is that the new standard of ‘reasonable cause’ will be easier to overcome than ‘exceptional circumstances’ required under the current Unfair Dismissals Acts. This means that claims which would ordinarily be out of time may be heard.
Closing the doors
Under the Bill, hearings before the adjudicators of the WRC will be heard in private. This may prove beneficial for employers who want to keep company disputes private. However, on any appeal to the Labour Court the matter will be heard afresh in public.
A mediation service will now be rolled out for all complaints, not just those under the Employment Equality Acts. This has the advantage of dealing with matters at an early stage and potentially reducing costs.
Right of appeal to the civil courts only on a point of law
The Bill proposes restricting access to the civil courts save on a point of law. This may have the effect of reducing costs by keeping employment law matters in the specified forums.
Fees for using the service
The Bill contains a provision allowing the Minister to provide for fees to be levied on the users of the service. However, the Minster has decided not to introduce charges at this stage. Some view this as a missed opportunity to prevent vexatious claims clogging up the system. There will be a fee where a party, who failed to attend at the first instance hearing before the WRC without good cause, wishes to appeal to the Labour Court. In such a case, the offending party will have to pay a fee of €300 to lodge his/her appeal.
It is proposed that inspectors will have the power to serve a compliance notice on an employer, where an inspector is satisfied that an employer has breached one of a list of employment laws. A compliance notice will oblige an employer to do, or refrain from doing, any acts specified in the notice. Failure to comply with the notice is a criminal offence punishable, in the most serious cases, by fines of up to €50,000 or terms of imprisonment.
Fixed payment notices
This is a new concept under the Bill. An inspector may issue a fixed payment notice of up to €2,000, where the inspector has reasonable grounds for believing that an employer has committed an offence under specified legislation. These fixed payment notices are akin to ‘on the spot’ fines and will be issued for a variety of breaches.