The Workplace Relations Act 2015 (the "Act") was signed into law on 20 May 2015 and is due to commence on 1 October 2015.
The Act introduces long-awaited root-and-branch reforms for resolving workplace disputes and enforcing employment law in Ireland. Employees and employers will no longer have to navigate through a maze of various tribunals and courts, appeals procedures, time limits and enforcement procedures. The current system will be simplified by providing one single point of entry for employment disputes and one sole route of appeal.
Under the current system, there are essentially five different bodies to which an employment claim can be brought; the Rights Commissioner, the Employment Appeals Tribunal (the "EAT"), the Labour Court, the Equality Tribunal and the National Employment Rights Authority ("NERA"). The fact that different bodies can process separate claims arising from the same set of circumstances and the same claim form, is extremely frustrating and time consuming, not to mention costly. Between the different forums, timelines and appeal mechanisms, employment law procedures have become a minefield for employment lawyers, never mind employees or employers themselves.
All that is set to change with the implementation of the Act.
Two Tier Structure
Under the Act, there will be a simplified, two-tier structure consisting of just one forum for hearing initial complaints, the Workplace Relations Commission ("WRC") and one single appeal body, a new Labour Court.
(i) Workplace Relations Commission
The WRC will be the umbrella body for dealing with all claims lodged from 1 October 2015 onwards. It will incorporate the functions of the EAT, the Rights Commissioner, the Equality Tribunal and NERA. Regardless of the nature of the claim, one single Adjudication Officer will hear the claim in private in the WRC.
(ii) Labour Court
The current appeals system is complex. For example, a decision of the EAT under the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977-2014 can be appealed to the Circuit Court, whereas a decision of the Equality Tribunal under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011 can be appealed to the Labour Court. Going forward, a re-jigged and expanded Labour Court will deal with all appeals from the WRC, with those appeals being heard afresh and in public. Labour Court decisions can be appealed to the High Court, but only on a point of law.
The limitation periods in which to bring a claim have also been harmonised. A claimant will have 6 months to lodge any claim to the WRC, which can be extended by a further 6 months where there is "reasonable cause" for the delay. Appeals to the Labour Court must be made within 42 days of the decision unless there are exceptional circumstances for the delay.
New Compliance Matters
WRC inspectors will be empowered to penalise employers for breaches of employment law. Inspectors can issue Fixed Payment Notices (on-the-spot fines) of up to €2,000 to employers for, by way of example, failing to furnish wage statements to employees. Compliance Notices can also be issued to compel employers to rectify breaches of certain employment laws relating to, for instance, a failure to provide employees with a contract of employment and/or certain breaches of working time rights.
The Act envisages much-needed and relatively radical reform to an out-dated system for resolving workplace disputes in Ireland. The idea behind the new structure is to make the system easier to understand and easier to access. On a practical level, employers do not need to be concerned about changing their day to day management of employees and running of their business as the law will stay the same.
The Act aims to improve workplace relations and compliance levels in Ireland for the benefit of employers and employees alike. Will the Act's objectives bear fruit? We will have to wait until October to see.
We will provide a further update on the new procedures once they are in force.
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