WRC in line for major changes after recent Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that, whilst the Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”) is compatible with the Constitution in its administration of justice, there are a number of procedural aspects which are unconstitutional. This landmark Supreme Court ruling is going to bring with it significant changes in terms of how WRC hearings operate and emergency legislation implementing these changes is set to come before the Oireachtas within weeks, altering how employees and employers determine future workplace disputes.

Background

The Applicant, Mr. Zalewski, was dismissed from his role in 2016 and issued an unfair dismissal claim to the WRC on foot of his termination. During his hearing Mr. Zalewski requested an adjournment for the purposes of allowing an absent witness to give evidence at a later stage. An adjournment was granted, however, when he returned to the WRC for his subsequent hearing, he was told that an Adjudication Officer had already issued a decision in favour of the Respondent and dismissed his complaints. Mr. Zalewski judicially reviewed the WRC’s decision, arguing that the process was unconstitutional and that it was administering justice which he further argued was outside of its remit.

The Appeal

With the matter being heard firstly in the High Court, it ultimately found its way to the Supreme Court on appeal where, in a 4:3 majority judgment, Mr. Justice O’Donnell held that although the WRC was engaged in the administration of justice, it was doing so legally under Article 37 of the Constitution which expressly grants power to non-judicial bodies to engage in a limited judicial capacity.

In handing down his judgment, Mr. Justice O’Donnell confirmed the constitutional validity of the WRC but noted the procedural defects that arise when exercising its powers. He referred to the fact that there was a blanket prohibition on hearings being held in public, there was no requirement to hear evidence on oath and finally, no express provision for cross-examination of witnesses in the WRC which, he stated, is at the heart of fair procedures.

What does this mean for employers?

There is no doubt that the recent Supreme Court judgment will have a profound affect on how the WRC operates going forward. A list of these changes has been published by the WRC and some are to come into effect immediately. These include:

  • Public hearings – possibly one of the most significant changes due to come into effect is that members of the public can now attend WRC hearings, subject to the availability of technical arrangements. This, importantly, will also extend to remote hearings which are currently taking place during Covid-19 lockdown.
  • Parties to be Identified – previously it was the case that parties involved in a WRC hearing would be anonymised. However, where hearings took place on or before the 6th April 2021, the names of employees and employers privy to a dispute will now be published. This is a significant U-turn which may have serious reputational repercussions for those seeking the services of the WRC.
  • Evidence to be given on oath – future hearings will now see witnesses swearing an oath or affirmation prior to giving evidence and penalties will be handed down where an individual provides untruthful evidence.

Whilst the news of the changes to how the WRC operates will be broadly welcomed it will pose procedural challenges and undoubtedly add to the already severely backlogged system, as such in circumstances where mediations are unaffected it may result in an increase in parties using the WRC’s mediation service as a means of resolving workplace disputes more efficiently.

For further information please contact Emma Richmond or Christopher Ryan of our Employment Team.

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