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The Workplace Relations Act 2015 will herald a significant change in the way in which employment law is administered in Ireland. There are over 40 pieces of legislation touching on the employer/employee relationship, and with that , a number of different forums have been established to administer the law – the Employment Appeals Tribunal , The Rights Commissioner Service, the Equality Tribunal, the Labour Court to name a number of the bodies with which people are familiar.

Changes to the Administration:
The Act which comes into effect on 1 October 2015 contains nothing new in terms of the law as it applies to matters of employment. However, the changes to the administration are wide ranging. In summary, the EAT will be abolished, along with the Equality Tribunal and Rights Commissioner service. Hearings at first instance will take place before the newly formed Adjudication Officers of the Labour Court (made up of former Rights Commissioners and Equality Officers). Appeals will be to the Labour Court. An appeal from the Labour Court now lies only to the High Court on a point of law.

The number of potential forums for dealing with employment related claims is thus reduced, the role of mediations is emphasised, and time limits are more defined and stringent, thus reducing the delays currently experienced in the present system.

What this means for employers:
The reaction is mixed – the hope is for a simplified and more efficient system for dealing with employment related claims and disputes, serving both employers and employees more effectively. The current system is viewed as “overly legalistic”. Many lawyers are expressing dismay over the new provisions. The cynic will argue that dismay arises from a potential downturn in their workloads.

On another less self-serving front, there is genuine concern as to the erosion of the judicial function in the administration of justice. Currently, the EAT is chaired by a qualified solicitor or barrister, and that Chairperson sits as part of the three person Tribunal hearing claims arising from a number of statutes , but most commonly claims for unfair dismissal from employment. The new legislation does not require the Adjudication Officer who will now hear such claims, to be a lawyer. With the abolition of the current Rights Commissioners there will thankfully be a number of experienced persons available to fill the role, albeit not qualified lawyers.

On another front, the requirement that “justice is seen to be done”, underpins that concept of public hearings. The EAT currently hears cases in public. By contrast, the new Act provides that hearings before the Adjudication Officer be in private.

Now everybody will expect a backlash from a group of disenfranchised lawyers. This is particularly so where previous areas practice have been eroded - the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) has reduced the number of claims being handled by lawyers through the Courts; and the reduction in property activity over the past number of years has also had a serious impact in what was considered by many as the bread and butter of a legal practice. However, in the removal of lawyers from the domain of Employment Law, the question arises as to whether the interests and legal entitlements of employers and employees are being properly served.

Considerations ahead:
While lawyer bashing is an old favourite past time of many, lawyers have remained in positions where the law is administered – notably the Courts and various Tribunals. Such positions are protected by the Constitution in that “Justice shall be administered in Courts established by law by judges …” (Art 34.1). Specialist knowledge and experience of the law and legal practice is needed to properly administer the law, and to ensure that the rights and entitlements of persons coming before those bodies are fully protected. Whether the Workplace Relations Act 2015 will serve to meet the Constitutional requirements remains to be seen, and it is anticipated that it will not be long before the Supreme Court will be asked to consider its provisions.

Dylan Macaulay
DM Macaulay & Co
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