Irish High Court dismisses constitutional challenge to procedures of Workplace Relations Commission

The Irish High Court has dismissed a challenge to the constitutional validity of current procedures used for determining workplace disputes.

The applicant in this case, Tomasz Zalewski, lodged a complaint with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in 2016, alleging that he was unfairly dismissed from his job as assistant manager at Buywise Discount Store. He also claimed that his employer had failed to pay him in lieu of notice. He denied that he had showed gross misconduct by failing to follow their policy for robbery prevention and having no interest in the success of the business. He insisted that, in order to properly present his case, he would need to give oral evidence and have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses from Buywise.

At the hearing before an adjudication officer at the WRC, there was no opportunity for oral evidence or cross-examination. The officer only accepted written submissions from both parties and the hearing lasted a total of 10 minutes. In December 2016, the applicant received a written decision from the adjudication officer that she had decided in favour of Buywise.

In February 2017, Mr Zalewski got leave of the High Court for judicial review proceedings challenging the constitutionality of the dispute resolution procedures outlined in Part V of the Workplace Relations Act 2015. During this case, the WRC conceded that the adjudication officer’s decision should be quashed due to “administrative error”. On the constitutional point, the primary question was whether the procedural mechanism for resolving employment disputes set up under the 2015 Act involved the “administration of justice” within the meaning of Article 15 of the Constitution. If it was decided that it did, the Workplace Relations Commission could not decide on such matters as the administration of justice is reserved exclusively for judges.

In delivering his judgment, Mr Justice Simons said that the powers exercised by adjudication officers had many of the characteristics of the administration of justice, for example, they had the power to determine disputes by way of an inter partes hearing, order parties to pay large sums of money and have employees reinstated. Despite this, in his view, adjudication officers lacked one power that was crucial to the administration of justice; they could not enforce their own decisions. Enforcement of decisions can only be done through application to the District Court, which “cannot be dismissed as a mere rubber-stamping of the earlier determination. The District Court’s discretion to modify the form of redress represents a significant curtailment of the decision-making powers of the adjudication officers and the Labour Court”. This being the case, adjudication officers were not involved in the administration of justice within the meaning of Article 15 of the Constitution. The Court did express hesitation in reaching this conclusion due to concern as to the limitations of the District Court procedure, being that the application to that court is made without hearing the employer and without hearing any evidence.

The Court also rejected the other argument put forward by the applicant that the procedures in the 2015 Act were “deficient” because adjudication officers were not required to have legal qualifications and there was no express provision for cross-examining witnesses. Judge Simons held that there was no evidence to show that an absence of legal qualifications had prevented officers from carrying out their functions and that the Act allowed for cross-examination when required.

The High Court, therefore, dismissed the applicant’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and directed that his unfair dismissal claim return to the WRC for adjudication by a different officer.

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