The Supreme Court has a rejected a legal challenge that threw a constitutional question mark over the State's system for resolving workplace disputes.
The seven-judge court ruled on Tuesday that the Workplace Relations Commission’s (WRC) power to adjudicate disputes between employers and staff “does not offend the Constitution”.
Their ruling removes a potential legal question mark over the commission raised by the first test case to challenge 2015 legislation that streamlined the State’s industrial relations laws and its system for handling workplace disputes.
Lawyers for Tomasz Zalewski, who says he was unfairly dismissed by Buywise Discount Stores Ltd, argued that part V of the Workplace Relations Act, 2015, was unconstitutional.
They maintained that when the commission ruled on workplace disputes it was administering justice, a power they said article 34 of the Constitution only gave to the courts and judges.
While the Supreme Court agreed that the WRC was administering justice, it ruled that it was only exercising limited jurisdiction, which it said the Constitution permitted under article 37.
In the majority judgment given on Tuesday, Mr Justice Donal O'Donnell, points out that the decision of a WRC adjudication officer is limited to employment law issues. He adds that this can be appealed to the Labour Court and then to the High Court.
“I would conclude that the WRC is exercising limited powers and functions of judicial nature, which exercise of power is therefore covered by article 37 and does not, therefore, offend the Constitution,” his ruling states.
Justice O’Donnell states that as a result, he does not accept that the “blanket ban” public hearings of cases before WRC adjudication officers is justified.
“Article 34.1 makes clear that public hearings are of the essence of the administration of justice,”he says.
Justice O'Donnell also states that questions raised by Mr Zalewski's senior counsels, Peter Ward and Cian Ferriter, over the WRC's procedures, are justified.
These include the absence of a requirement to give evidence on oath and the lack of a specific reference in the legislation to a right to cross-examine anyone giving evidence.
However, he notes that the commission’s own guide to procedures does allow for cross-examination and says the legislation’s failure to expressly include this does not render it unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Mr Frank Clarke, Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne and Ms Justice Iseult O'Malley, agreed, giving a four to three majority.
Mr Justice William McKechnie, Mr Justice Peter Charleton and Mr Justice John MacMenamin disagreed with the majority verdict.
Justice MacMenamin’s ruling argues that the powers given to the WRC are too broad to be considered “limited” under article 37.
However, the State, Attorney General and the WRC, the respondents in the case, denied Mr Zalewski’s central claim that part V of the 2015 Act was unconstitutional.
Unfair dismissal claim
Mr Zalewski, of North Strand Road, Dublin 3, claims he was unfairly dismissed from his job as assistant manager at the local Costcutter shop in 2016.
In May 2016, he complained to the WRC, alleging unfair dismissal and non-payment of wages in lieu of notice.
The hearing before the WRC’s adjudication officer the following October took 10 minutes. There was no opportunity for cross-examination, but the officer accepted documents and written evidence from both sides. She dismissed his complaint.
He got leave for a High Court judicial review in February 2017, when the WRC conceded the officer’s decision should be quashed because of “administrative error”.
The Supreme Court in 2018 overturned a finding by the High Court that Mr Zalewski, as a result of the WRC concession, lacked legal standing to continue his constitutional challenge.
The matter then returned to the High Court where Mr Justice Garrett Simons ruled that the WRC was not administering justice as it was unable to enforce its decisions.