The High Court, in Coyle v The Labour Court and Blackrock College [2020] IEHC 111, has overturned a decision of the Labour Court in a matter relating to a fixed term employment contract and ordered that it rehear the case.

Background

Ms Coyle (the “Appellant”) worked for Blackrock College (the “College”) in Dublin since 1984 as an art teacher. The Appellant was employed throughout the 34 years in question on a series of fixed term contracts which were renewed at the start of each academic year and continued for the duration of that year for a period of 9 months. For the remaining three months – June, July and August, the Appellant was not paid by the school and had to sign on for social welfare payments. Following a consultation with her solicitor in 2016, the Appellant sought redress pursuant to the Protection of Employees (Fixed-Term Work) Act, 2003 (the “2003 Act”) and asked for a contract of indefinite duration.

The College resisted this application by maintaining that she was a permanent employee notwithstanding the fact that she was not paid during the period of June, July and August (i.e. the school summer holidays). The College said their position was that she was on a period of “lay-off” during these months.

Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court Findings

The Appellant’s claim was initially heard by an Adjudication Officer of the Workplace Relations Commission who determined that she was a “fixed-term employee” for the purposes of the 2003 Act. They also found that she had been treated in a less favourable manner than other teachers employed by the College and made an order placing her on an annual salary, to be paid monthly along with €5,000 compensation. The College appealed this finding to the Labour Court who found that a preliminary hearing should take place to establish whether the appellant was or was not a “fixed term employee” for the purposes of the 2003 Act.

In 2018, the Labour Court held that she was, at all times, a permanent employee of the College, that she did not come within the definition of a “fixed term employee” and that accordingly, she was not entitled to rely on the provisions of the 2003 Act.

The High Court Findings

The Appellant appealed the findings of the Labour Court to the High Court pursuant to Section 46 of the Workplace Relations Act, 2015 which states, inter alia, that the High Court’s decision “shall be final and conclusive.”

The High Court noted in particular the wording of a letter by the solicitors acting for the College dated 2 November 2017 wherein they stated:

(i) Our client acknowledges that your client is not employed by it during the Summer months; and

(ii) It regards her as a permanent employee, however, as she has always had an expectation of returning to the school each year after the Summer holidays.”

In its judgment, the High Court noted “an “expectation” of returning to work falls short of a legal entitlement...” The Court went on to say it could not “see how the respondent (the Labour Court) could have made the finding of fact it did in light of this clear admission in open correspondence…” and that accordingly, the finding of fact made by the Labour Court was one “which no reasonable decision-making body could make.”

The High Court, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Nano Nagle School v Marie Daly [2019] IESC 68, allowed the appeal and remitted the matter back to the Labour Court to rehear.

Concluding remarks

This case serves as a reminder to employers to be mindful of the legal basis upon which they are engaging employees and to properly consider the facts of each case. The High Court was clear that the creation of an “expectation” within an employment relationship instead of a legal entitlement will fall short when determining the legal basis of employment. The judgment further serves to highlight to legal practitioners the potential consequences of using inaccurate wording in open correspondence and the importance of remaining aware of this at all times.