The Irish Times view : action needed to underpin vital work of employment rights body

A Supreme Court judgment means the Government needs to move quickly to remove uncertainty

The Workplace Relations Commission – new legislation now planned . Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

The Workplace Relations Commission – new legislation now planned . Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

In 2015 the then Minister for Jobs and Enterprise Richard Bruton introduced reforms aimed at streamlining the area of workplace relations services.

The five employment rights bodies then in place were merged into two. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) was to deal with all cases at first instance and the Labour Court was to deal with cases on appeal. Cases before adjudication officers at the WRC were to be held in private, with findings published on an anonymised basis.

The Minister said the aim was to deliver a better service while generating savings for the taxpayer. Despite concerns raised at the time, the government pushed ahead.

Things have not worked out as expected, however, and emergency legislation will now have to be rushed through the Oireachtas to change some of the current operations of the WRC. This is on foot of a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this month.

The shocking manner in which the WRC had dealt with a case brought to it in 2016 by a Dublin shop worker, Tomasz Zalewski, ultimately led to the ruling of the Supreme Court. The court strongly criticised errors on the part of the WRC in its dealings with Mr Zalewski’s complaint – “startling” and “calamitous” being among the words used.

However the core issue before the Supreme Court was whether the WRC process amounted to the administration of justice – required under Article 34 of the Constitution to be administered by judges – and whether the statutory framework adequately vindicated a claimant’s rights.

A majority of the court held that the process involved the exercise of limited powers of administration of justice within the meaning of Article 37 of the Constitution and was not unconstitutional.

However the Supreme Court also held that some aspects of the 2015 Workplace Relations Act were inconsistent with the Constitution. These included the requirement that all hearings before an adjudication officer must be held otherwise than in public – and the lack of any provision for the administration of an oath, or any possibility of punishment for giving false evidence.

Minister of State for Business and Employment Damien English said his department was drafting emergency legislation to be introduced as a matter of urgency. The new legislation will provide for public hearings and the taking of evidence on oath. The Supreme Court also made observations concerning the need for “enhanced independence” on the part of adjudication officers and changes may be needed here too.

The Government needs to move quickly to resolve the issues raised by the ruling. The operation of the WRC is too important to be left in limbo.

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