Last week’s publication of the Workplace Relations Bill 2014 is a significant development in Irish employment law. When enacted the Bill will introduce root-and-branch reforms for how workplace disputes are processed. Four workplace relations bodies, the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) (including the Rights Commissioner Service), the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA), the Equality Tribunal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) will be abolished and their functions will be subsumed into two bodies: a new Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) and an expanded version of the Labour Court. The Bill will also give significant powers to workplace inspectors and introduces two new services to  assist employers and employees to resolve and settle disputes themselves without the need for formal adjudication by a third party. The decision to introduce the Bill follows recognition that the current system can be frustrating for employers, employees and their representatives.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has set the end of this year as a target date for enacting the Bill. Disputes will continue to be heard by the current workplace relations bodies up to a cut-off date to be specified in the legislation.

A new system for resolving workplace disputes - The Workplace Relations Commission

The functions of the LRC, NERA, the Equality Tribunal, the first instance functions of the EAT and the first instance functions of the Labour Court will be transferred to the WRC. The WRC will be tasked with adjudicating or facilitating the resolution of all employment disputes at first instance, eliminating the need to take multiple claims to multiple workplace relations bodies.

The Bill offers three services for resolving disputes at the WRC. Disputing parties can avail of the services of either a Case Resolution Officer or a Mediator. Both of these services will offer alternative ways of resolving disputes without the need for adjudication. The WRC will refer disputes to these two services in appropriate circumstances, but participation is not obligatory - either party can decide that they would prefer for the matter to be adjudicated by an Adjudication Officer.

Case Resolution Officer

Case Resolution Officers will provide an informal, telephone-based advisory service to assist employers and employees to resolve a dispute by means of settlement, rather than through formal adjudication. This scheme has been piloted and implemented since May 2012 through the ‘Early Resolution Service’.

Mediation Officer

This will be a face-to-face mediation service staffed by Mediation Officers at the WRC who will facilitate parties to reach a settlement agreement.

Adjudication Officer

Adjudication Officers will hear complaints about breaches of employment law and will give a decision on the matter. Complaints will be heard in private but decisions will, in general, be published. Existing Rights Commissioners and Equality Officers will be transferred to the role of Adjudication Officers. It is expected that further Adjudication Officers will be recruited by way of open competition.

Appeals to the Labour Court

An expanded version of the Labour Court will act as a court of appeal for decisions made by WRC Adjudication Officers. Appeals currently heard by the EAT will be transferred to the Labour Court. Appeals will be heard in public and decisions will, in general, be published. Labour Court decisions will in turn be appealable to the High Court, but only on a point of law. Current Labour Court members will continue in their role, and a new division will be recruited for the Labour Court by way of open competition.

Legal costs and fees for the new services

The significant issue of whether a party to proceedings before a WRC Adjudication Officer or the Labour Court may be liable for the other party’s legal costs is not dealt with in the Bill.

Although the Bill permits fees to be charged for the new services, the Department has previously indicated that there will be no fee for taking claims before the WRC or the Labour Court. However, the Department is currently considering introducing a refundable fee of €300 to apply to a party who lodges an appeal before the Labour Court after they failed to attend an initial hearing before the WRC. If the appellant can demonstrate good cause for not having attended the WRC hearing, then the amount will be refunded.

Interestingly, fees were introduced for making claims to employment tribunals in England and Wales in July 2013. Over the past year, there has been a significant reduction in cases submitted to employment tribunals. In the three months immediately after the fees were introduced there was a 79% reduction in cases submitted, compared to the same period in 2012. The latest figures from January to March 2014 indicate a 58% reduction in cases compared with the same period in 2013.

Enforcement of awards

If an employer fails to comply with the decision of an Adjudication Officer or the Labour Court, the employee (or their representative) can apply to the District Court for an order directing the employer “to carry out a decision in accordance with its terms”.

New compliance measures

Inspectors will either be appointed or transferred from previous inspectorate roles to the WRC under the Bill and will be granted new powers. They will be empowered to issue Fixed Payment Notices - on-the-spot fines to employers of up to €2,000 - for failing to produce wage statements to employees, for failing to provide employees with a written statement of their hourly rate of pay for a pay reference period, and for failing to notify the Minister of proposed collective redundancies. Inspectors will also be able to issue Compliance Notices to compel employers to rectify contraventions of certain employment laws relating to, for instance, an unlawful deduction of wages, failing to provide employees with a contract of employment or written disciplinary procedures, and certain breaches of working time rights.

Summary

The Workplace Relations Bill envisages much-needed and relatively radical reform to an outdated system for resolving workplace disputes in Ireland. The introduction of the Bill, and the debate which will undoubtedly follow in the coming months before its enactment, presents a unique opportunity to improve not only the quality of workplace dispute resolution services in Ireland, but to improve workplace relations and compliance levels in Ireland more generally, to the benefit of employers and employees alike.