Labour Court sees increase in employment law cases

Alan Hickey

June 19 2020

The Labour Court (the Court) has published its Annual Report for 2019. The work of the Court can be divided into two principal functions: the resolution of disputes under industrial relations legislation and the resolution of disputes under employment rights law.

The Court continues to experience an increase in appeals from the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) in recent years. Appeals from the WRC have increased from 399 in 2015 to 703 in 2019. However, the report stressed that the increase in WRC appeal numbers can be attributed to the implementation of the single appeal route to the Labour Court in 2015. Despite what the numbers suggest, the Court does not infer from this statistic that there’s a growing trend of higher levels of disputes emerging between employers and workers concerning employment rights.

The Court highlights in the report that before the WRC framework for resolving workplace disputes was introduced in 2015, the Court’s workload tended to be split almost on a 50:50 basis between industrial relations and employment rights disputes. The 2019 report illustrates that the Court now handles more employment rights cases with 60% of its workload focusing on appeals from the WRC.

The Court also predicts that this trend of handling increasing levels of employment rights work will continue into the future. 

The numbers

The Court received a total of 1,182 referrals under all statutes within its jurisdiction in 2019.

This represents a marginal increase of 1.1% on 1,169 received in 2018.

Industrial relations cases increased from 399 in 2018 to 479 in 2019 representing a notable 20.1% increase.

The level of referrals in employment rights cases decreased by 8.7% from 770 in 2018 to 703 in 2019.

Appeals of WRC unfair dismissal decisions have a one in five chance of being overturned. The Court wholly overturned 20% of all WRC decisions under unfair dismissal legislation and upheld only 46% of appeals under this heading.

In contrast, appeals of discrimination findings seem much less likely to be overturned, with 64% of such decisions upheld by the Court on appeal, and just 11% overturned.

Industrial relations

As industrial relations disputes tend to involve a cohort of workers in a single referral, the Court continues to see this area of its jurisdiction as the one that has the most widespread impact across the economy.  The report records that the statistics show a consistent and relatively low level of industrial dispute activity in the economy. Although a static number of industrial relations disputes were heard in 2019, the nine disputes in progress in 2019 involve over 42,000 workers in comparison to 10 disputes in 2018 which involved just 1,814 workers. This may be attributable to pay claims being referred by Trade Unions that have been unable to secure pay rises on behalf of their members.

Virtual hearings

The Court has also been hearing cases in virtual courtrooms since the beginning of June following a pilot programme to assess the viability of remote hearings. Peninsula was one of the stakeholders involved in the pilot programme and we are pleased to see that virtual hearings for suitable cases will continue in the medium term. Many referrals will still need to be assessed in a physical courtroom and priority will be given to such cases when the Court reopens its buildings in July.

A deluge of claims in 2020/21?

Separate to The Labour Court, two legal rights advocacy groups also published recent statistics indicating that employees have concerns around how their employment has been affected by COVID-19. Both the Free Legal Advice Centre network and Community Law and Mediation recently reported surges in the number of employment-related queries they have received from employees since the pandemic began.

Concerns raised by employees related to breach of contract, discrimination, pay entitlements, maternity leave entitlements and failure to accommodate employees who had no access to childcare. Some employees also called into question the adequacy of health & safety measures in their workplace.

Given the many challenges employers face in dealing with COVID-19, the likelihood is that the Court will, in line with its prediction, be hearing more employment rights referrals in the years ahead.

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