Workplace Relations Act

01 June 2015

Updated June 2015

Gives introductory guidance on the Workplace Relations Act 2015. Covers how the new system works, time limits for bringing a claim, how disputes and appeals are handled, how compliance and fixed payment notices are used, fees for using the service, sharing information on employers breaching the law and an amendment to the working time legislation on annual leave while on sick leave.

The Workplace Relations Act 2015 has been heralded as one of the most radical reforms of employment law in Ireland in almost 50 years. It is designed to make it less complicated for employees to bring claims and for employers to respond to them, to provide swifter access to justice and quicker resolution of disputes for everyone.

The objective of the Act is to reform Ireland’s workplace relations bodies, delivering a world class workplace relations service, providing an integrated industrial relations, adjudication and enforcement service which is simple to use, independent, effective, impartial, cost-effective and provides for a workable means of redress and enforcement, within a reasonable period. (Minister of State for Businesses and Employment, Gerald Nash TD, 4 February 2015)

The Act forms part of the government’s stated aim to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business. The rationale is to simplify and streamline workplace dispute procedures and bodies.

Currently, depending on the type of workplace dispute, an employee may have to take their case to one or more of the following bodies: Labour Relations Commission (LRC); the Equality Tribunal; a Rights Commissioner; the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT); or the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA).

In streamlining the current system, the Act now provides a single gateway for employment disputes in Ireland and replaces the current maze of tribunals and courts.

From now on all employment disputes - everything from unfair dismissals and discrimination claims to working time and industrial relations issues – will be referred to the newly established Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in the first instance.

There will now be one appeal body: the Labour Court. The Labour Court will act as the Court of Appeal for decisions of Adjudication Officers (AOs) of the WRC. 

This streamlining is a welcome development in what was an overly complex and confusing process.

The Act standardises limitation periods for the referral of a dispute under any employment or equality legislation to six months. This can be extended to 12 months where reasonable cause can be shown.

This is a particularly welcome development with regard to seeking an extension of time for lodging a complaint as currently, under the unfair dismissals regime, an extension of time can only be granted where there are exceptional circumstances. Demonstrating reasonable cause is a lower threshold to prove and will be welcomed by those seeking extensions.

The Act encourages mediation and the early resolution of disputes as close as possible to the workplace and without the need for parties to have to resort to formal adjudication where possible.

An early resolution system is currently being trialled. When a complaint arrives at the WRC, it may be referred to a mediation officer if it is deemed suitable for early resolution. If so and, if both parties agree to it, then a mediation conference (potentially held over the phone) will be arranged. Any resolution arising from this will be binding on the parties and enforceable in the Courts.

Should the early resolution and mediation process prove unsuccessful, both parties will be prohibited from using any information disclosed as part of the process in any subsequent proceedings, including in the adjudication or inspection processes.

If early resolution is not deemed appropriate, is refused by the parties or if an attempt at mediation is unsuccessful, a dispute will then be referred to a single AO at the WRC.

This process is envisaged as being more inquisitorial than adversarial. The hearing will be held in private and no evidence will be on oath. Representation (legal or otherwise) will be allowed, but there are no references in the Act to the examination or cross-examination of witnesses. An AO can require the attendance of a witness and/or the production of documents relevant to the proceedings. It is envisaged that this will be enforced more vigorously than in the EAT.

All decisions of AOs will be published on the internet on an anonymised basis

Any appeal from a decision of an AO will simply go to the Labour Court in all instances. In contrast to hearings before AOs, the Labour Court hearings will be in public and decisions will be published in full unless special circumstances arise.

Decisions of the Labour Court can then be appealed to the High Court on a point of law only (rather than re-hearing the entire case). The Act allows also for the determination of disputes at adjudication and/or appeal stage based on written submissions alone, rather than by way of a full oral hearing. However, either side can object to this.

The Act now provides for new procedures to be implemented for the enforcement of awards of an AO or the Labour Court through the District Court.

The Act goes beyond simply reforming processes and procedures. In order to promote higher levels of compliance with employment and equality law, employers can now be hit with on the spot fines (with the possibility of imprisonment) for breaches of employment law.

Where a WRC inspector is satisfied that an employer has contravened specified sections of employment legislation in the Unfair Dismissals Act, Payment of Wages Act, Maternity Protection Act, Terms of Employment (Information) Act, Organisation of Working Time Act, Carer's Leave Act, or Protection of Employees (Temporary Agency Work) Act, they may issue the employer with a Compliance Notice.

The Compliance Notice is essentially a direction from an inspector to an employer to do or refrain from doing certain things. If an employer believes they are compliant with the relevant legislation, they may appeal the Compliance Notice to the Labour Court.

Failure to comply with a Compliance Notice will be an offence and on indictment may result in a fine of up to €50,000 or imprisonment for up to three years for the employer concerned.

Where a WRC inspector has reasonable grounds for believing that an employer has committed an offence under the Protection of Employment Act, Payment of Wages Act or National Minimum Wage Act, they may issue the employer with a fine or Fixed Payment Notice which may not exceed €2,000.

This in some respects could be viewed as a plea-bargain. If the employer agrees to pay the Fixed Payment Notice within 42 days the WRC will not prosecute the relevant offence.

There is no option to appeal a Fixed Payment Notice. If an employer disputes it, they would simply not pay it and defend the resulting prosecution.

For the first time, the Act gives the Minister for Jobs the power to charge fees to employees wishing to bring claims against their employer. However, fees were introduced recently in the UK and this has been criticised by some commentators as a barrier to justice for employees.

While there are no plans to introduce blanket fees, it has been suggested in recent Dáil and Seanad debates that where a party fails to appear at an adjudicator hearing without good cause and wishes to appeal the decision to the Labour Court, that party will have to pay a fee of €300 when lodging its appeal. If the Labour Court determines that the party in question had good cause for failing to attend the first instance hearing, the fee will be refunded.

No decisions have yet been made, but a relatively broad power has been granted to the Minister.

The Act allows for increased sharing of information on employers who are in breach of employment law between various state agencies. This would allow the WRC to potentially share PPS numbers, ERN numbers and any other relevant information regarding non-compliant employers with the Revenue Commissioners, the Gardaí, the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the Health and Safety Authority, the Pensions Ombudsman and HIQA, among others.

A notable inclusion in the Act allows the WRC to contact any public contracting authority which awards public works contracts and inform that body of a breach by a contractor (or subcontractor) of any relevant legislative provision. This may exclude certain employers from being considered for certain public tenders, or may result in payments under an existing contract with a public body being withheld pending compliance with the relevant law.

Whilst in broad terms the Act does not enhance or subtract any substantive employment law rights of employees, there is one exception to this. The Act provides for an amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 to allow for the accrual of annual leave whilst on sick leave with a carryover period for this accrual of 15 months.

This amendment is being introduced to bring the Irish legislation in line with the grounding European Directive and subsequent CJEU decisions on the point. It came into force on 1 August 2015.

For information on how the WRC and Labour Court are operating under the new system, see our section on WRC developments.

This factsheet was written by A&L Goodbody, Solicitors, IFSC, North Wall Quay, Dublin 1.

© A&L Goodbody Solicitors. The material is not intended to provide, and does not constitute, legal or any other advice on any particular matter, and is provided for general information purposes only.