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Changing the landscape of Irish employment law – The Workplace Relations Act 2015

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Changing the landscape of Irish employment law – The Workplace Relations Act 2015

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The Workplace Relations Act 2015 (“the Act”) came into effect on 1 October 2015 and is designed to dramatically reform the employment law landscape in Ireland. The objective of the Act is to deliver a world-class workplace relations service which is simple to use, independent, impartial and cost effective.

New Structure

The Act aims to simplify the complex employment dispute resolution system in Ireland. Up until 1 October 2015 an employee had to take their case to one or more of the following statutory employment bodies:

  • The Labour Relations Commission,
  • A Rights Commissioner,
  • The Employment Appeals Tribunal (“the EAT”),
  • The Equality Tribunal,
  • The National Employment Rights Authority.

The former system regularly gave rise to a multiplicity of claims being pursued by an employee before a number of different bodies, a system which was frustrating, time consuming and costly for employers and employees.

With effect from 1 October all employment claims will be dealt with under this new system which creates a single forum for all employment disputes by establishing the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). The WRC will employ mediation and adjudication officers to deal with all employment and industrial relations disputes in the first instance. There is now only one appeal body – the Labour Court.

Early resolution/Adjudication

The new system places greater emphasis on early and informal resolution of employment disputes.  It is only where parties refuse to participate in early resolution (through the appointment of either a case resolution officer or a mediation officer), or where early resolution is deemed inappropriate or unsuccessful, that the dispute will be referred to an adjudication officer for a decision.  A notable departure from the old system is that, regardless of the nature of the claim, one single adjudication officer will hear the claim in private and while the adjudication officer is empowered to subpoena witnesses to attend, evidence will not be required to be provided on oath.  The Act also permits proceeding by way of written submissions in certain limited circumstances.

Anonymity of Decisions

The WRC may publish the decisions of the adjudication officers online but the names of the parties will remain anonymous. This is in stark contrast to the former system where unfair dismissal hearings were held in public, decisions were publicly available online and were regularly reported upon by the media.

Appeals will however continue to be held in public, unless on application by one party to the appeal, the Labour Court is satisfied that special circumstances exist requiring the matter to be heard in private.

Time Limit to bring a claim

Limitation periods to bring a claim under employment and equality legislation have been standardised to six months from the date of the alleged contravention, which can be extended up to 12 months where “reasonable cause” can be shown.

Enforcement/Compliance

The Act also introduces simpler and more cost effective methods of enforcing awards and stricter compliance measures. Some noteworthy changes are as follows:

  • Applications can be made to the District Court for an Order directing an employer to implement a decision of an adjudication officer where an employer has failed to do so within 56 days of the decision being made.  In such circumstances an employer may face a fine or imprisonment.
  • The appointment of inspectors who are empowered to:
    • give employers “on the spot” fines of up to €2,000 with the possibility of imprisonment for breaches of certain specified offences, such as the failure to provide a payslip;
    • serve compliance notices directing employers to do or refrain from doing certain things – failure to comply may result in a fine of up to €50,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 3 years for the employer.  A compliance notice can be appealed to the Labour Court within 42 days of receipt.
    • power to enter any place of work, by use of reasonable force if necessary, to carry out an inspection and to take copies of or remove any books, records or documents found during the course of the inspection if felt necessary to do so.
    • require that employers pay the costs associated with carrying out such inspections in certain circumstances.

Annual Leave

The Act itself does not create any new employment rights or obligations with the exception of a provision entitling Irish employees to accrued annual leave while on certified sick leave, bringing the Irish position into line with recent rulings of the European Court of Justice.  The Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 is amended to reflect this provision and also provides that employees, unable to take all of their accrued annual leave due to illness in a given leave year, must take it within a carry-over period of 15 months following the end of the annual leave year.

Conclusion

While the Act introduces much needed and relatively radical reform to an outdated system for resolving workplace disputes in Ireland, a number of shortcomings have also been identified, not least in the adjudication/hearing process itself.  It remains to be seen if this Act will achieve the much needed reform envisaged.

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