The Workplace Relations Act 2015 – Practical Implications

We have a date! The Act will commence on 1 October 2015. However, what does this mean for your organisation.

A New Structure for Hearing Disputes

The Act will establish a new body known as the Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”), which will amalgamate the Labour Relations Commission (“LRC”), the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the first instance functions of the Employment Appeals Tribunal (the “EAT”) and the Labour Court. The EAT and LRC will be dissolved, once they have disposed of all legacy first instance complaints. It is anticipated that this will take in or about 18 months as there are currently in excess of 3,500 cases in the system.

A new two-tier workplace relations structure will be created;

  • the WRC, for workplace complaints at the first instance; and
  • a reconfigured Labour Court, for all cases on appeal from the WRC.

The Format of Hearings

Claims at first instance will be heard by a single adjudication officer (an “AO”) sitting in private. This contrasts to current EAT hearings which are held in public before three adjudicators. However, it is similar to the current Right’s Commissioner hearings. The Act gives an explicit right of representation to lawyers, trade unions and employers’ representatives.

Landsdowne House in Dublin will serve as the main venue for all hearings. However, in a very positive move, it is envisaged that there will be regional hubs throughout the country to assist parties outside of Dublin. For example, there will be a hub in Carlow where all complaints raised in Kilkenny and Waterford will be heard and Mullingar will act as a hub for the midlands.

It is understood that to date, 19 AOs have been appointed to the WRC through the Public Appointments Service and that they have already undergone training to be ready for the new system. In fact, the AOs are currently working as equality officers, so as to deal with the current backlog that exists in the Equality Tribunal.

Alternative Resolutions and Compliance Measures

Under the new system, suitable disputes may be referred to a mediation officer regardless of the nature of the dispute (previously this mediation service only applied to equality cases), allowing parties to enter into legally binding and enforceable agreements. Where appropriate, the new system will also allow for complaints to be dealt with by written submissions only.

The new system allows for “compliance notices” to be served on employers who have contravened specific legislation, which requires the employer to do or refrain from doing specified acts by a specified date. If they comply, the matter will be deemed to have been resolved. Failure to comply with a notice will be an offence.

An inspector can also serve a “fixed payment notice” on an employer who the inspector reasonably believes has committed an offence under specific legislation, requiring an employer to pay a specific amount (maximum €2,000). If this amount is paid within 42 days, no prosecution is initiated. However, this only relates to offences under the Protection of Employment Act, the Payment of Wages Act and the National Minimum Wage Act.

Time Frames

Limitation periods for the referral of disputes will be six months, extendable to twelve months where “reasonable cause” is shown. Appeals against decisions of adjudications officers must be made to the Labour Court within 42 days. However, this timeline is extendable in exceptional circumstances.

The EAT currently has an estimated waiting time of 75 weeks for a hearing. However, it is hoped that the WRC will be able to schedule hearings within 3 months of the receipt of a complaint form. All complaints will be acknowledged (and respondents will be notified) within 5 working days of receipt of the complaint form.

Investigative Powers

The Labour Court, upon hearing an appeal, will be able to arrange for an inspector to enter any place or premises belonging to an employer who is a party to the appeal to inspect or remove any employment-related documents. Any resultant report is admissible against the employer.

It is believed that this power will only be used in exceptional circumstances.

Parallel Claims

There is now a single complaint form for all employment disputes. Where an employee takes a claim for unfair dismissal and discriminatory dismissal, in advance of the hearing, the WRC will write to the employee to choose one complaint. If the employee does not choose, only the unfair dismissal claim will be heard before the AO.

The changes are to be welcomed and it is hoped that the new system will streamline the process for employers.