Merger of five workplace dispute bodies moves a step closer

STANDFIRST Government cites need for better services and €2 million savings

Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, announcing the Workplace Relations Bill. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Richard Bruton, Minister for Jobs, announcing the Workplace Relations Bill. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Wed, Jul 9, 2014, 08:04

After eight reports and almost a decade of discussion, a major overhaul of the State’s workplace relations bodies moved a step closer yesterday when the Government approved the Bill that will merge five entities into two.

The system envisaged in the legislation will comprise two tiers: the Workplace Relations Commission, which will deal with complaints at first instance, and an expanded Labour Court, which will handle appeals.

Those two bodies will take on the functions of a set of institutions that have grown in an ad hoc way over the years: the Labour Relations Commission; the National Employment Rights Authority; the Equality Tribunal; the Employment Appeals Tribunal – all of which will cease to exist – and the Labour Court.

The rationale is partly financial. The Government estimates the cost of running the whole apparatus will be cut by €2 million, or 10 per cent, when the project is completed. In time the number of staff working in these bodies will fall by 20 per cent. But the project is also driven by a belief that the current system for resolving individual disputes in the workplace is wasteful, both for the State and for the people who use the system.

Critics have long complained that it makes no sense to have five entities with overlapping but completely separate operations in the same field, and that the current set-up is so complex that even experienced practitioners find it difficult to understand.

Other criticisms include a lack of consistency between bodies, overly legalistic procedures, excessive delays and a duplication of functions that can result in “forum shopping”.

World-class system

Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton says the changes will bring about a “modern, user-friendly, world-class” workplace relations system, where the focus will be on resolving disputes as quickly and cheaply as possible. In practice, he hopes this will be achieved by more emphasis on early and informal resolution of disputes; a single body that receives cases; one route and time limit for all appeals; speedier hearings and decisions; and greater use of electronic forms and filing.

Employers and trade unions are broadly in favour of the proposals, but some misgivings remain. During the consultation process, some of the ideas were criticised by, among others, a group of members of the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) and by members of the Employment Bar Association of Ireland.

The EAT group said the tribunal was currently made up of three members coming to the task with distinct perspectives and expertise, and warned that in the proposed new structure the decision- making process was being devolved for the most part to “lone civil servants with no expertise in industry or law”.

Members of the Employment Bar Association complained that the plan meant the adjudicators in serious disputes would not be required to have any legal qualification.

“Complex legal issues will have to be determined involving the interpretation and application of Irish and European law,” the group said.

The Government’s target is to enact the legislation by the end of the year.

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