In July 2014, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation published the Workplace Relations Bill 2014. The Workplace Relations Act 2014 (the “Act”) was signed into law by the President on 20 May 2015, with a commencement date of 1 July looking likely at this stage.
The key reform proposed in the Act is the establishment of a new Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) as the umbrella body for dealing with workplace complaints in the first instance. The WRC will, essentially, take over the statutory function of the various other employment law adjudicatory bodies, such as the EAT and the Equality Tribunal. Adjudication officers will hear all claims at first instance, and an expanded and reconfigured Labour Court will deal with all cases on appeal. Labour Court decisions can be appealed to the High Court, on a point of law only, which should in practice mean very few cases will go beyond the Labour Court stage. This new system effectively reduces an employment dispute to two hearings – an initial case and an appeal, within the one system.
This two-tier structure streamlines and replaces the current system, whereby employees can refer a dispute to one or more of a number of different statutory bodies including the EAT, the Equality Tribunal, the Labour Relations Commission and/or the Rights Commissioner Service, as well as the civil courts. Employees will still be able to issue proceedings in the civil courts, however, multiple statutory claims before numerous different bodies will now come to an end.
In addition to streamlining current procedure, certain procedural rules have been harmonised. The standard six month limitation period for making a claim still stands, however, this can now be extended for a further six months for a reasonable cause across all relevant employment legislation. Prior to this, there were differing tests applied in an application for an extension, depending on the legislation.
An adjudication officer will have the power to strike out cases which are not pursued for one year or more and decisions will be published within 28 days of the hearing, which if adhered to will be a significant development. The hearing will be in private and the decisions will be published in anonymised format on workplacerelations.ie. Decisions on appeal will not be anonymised, and the hearing will be in public.
On establishment of the WRC, all cases previously dealt with in the different fora will be automatically transferred to it. The only exception to this is the EAT which will continue to exist until it has concluded all cases issued before it prior to the legislation coming into effect, so both systems will exist in parallel for possibly up to 18 months.
The Act does not amend any substantive employment rights, save for some expected changes in respect of accruing annual leave whilst on sick leave, to bring Irish law in line with some recent decisions at European level. It is expected that a statutory instrument will be enacted providing for the procedural rules of the WRC.
For a more detailed discussion of the changes and implications for large employers, see our Matheson employment law podcast series.