Minister reports ‘good story’ on employment rights reform

On a day when there was some silliness in the air about Ministerial ‘report cards’ Richard Bruton returned to UCD, the location of his announcement last July at the UCD Law School/Employment Law Association of Ireland event on his plans to shake up the employment rights bodies to give an update on what he had been doing in the meantime.

The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation would be getting ‘A’s for effort and achievement on his ‘report card’!

Speaking at the IRN annual conference in UCD (www.irn.ie, no serious practitioner should be without a subscription!) the Minister told the attendance that he had ‘a good story to tell’ about the journey since that announcement.

He first outlined the principles underlying the project.

‘High standards in the workplace and good employment rights give us competitive advantage’ he said. ‘While the voluntary system is good up to a point the absence of a means to vindicate rights would undermine confidence in the system’.

He repeated the widely shared criticism of the current system as having too many routes of entry, of engaging parties in the adversarial process too early and of being too legalistic and costly.

His key priorities were early intervention, speedy adjudication when it reaches the adversarial stage and credible enforcement.

The Minister’s ‘good story’ included confirmation that the 30 complaints forms had now been reduced to one and the five portals of entry to the system also down to one.

There is a single website www.workplacerelations.ie

Employers are now notified in 48 hours that a claim has been lodged (this could have been 8 months according to the Minister and also in this writer’s experience. Long after the ‘safety’ of the six month deadline had passed one could learn that a claim had been lodged).

And this Minister ain’t finished yet!

The next phase will include the option of inputing a claim on line, and a pilot project of the new system ‘within weeks’.

The shape of the new system in three stages will be early resolution (mediation); inspection by the newly titled ‘Compliance Officers’ of NERA (better than ‘Inspectors’, the Minister feels) who will seek voluntary compliance and may impose ‘on the spot’ fines rather than drag an employer through the formal processes.

Stage three will be adjudication initially by a single person adjudicator with the option of a de novo appeal hearing at a three person tribunal in a newly vamped Labour court, it would seem.

And it doesn’t stop with the structures.

The Minister promised a decision from the first instance hearing within 28 days, and a database of ‘case law’ which parties can consult for reference.

Interestingly, as I understood him these adjudicators will be sought from suitably qualified people selected by open competition.

The Minister has promised that legislation to underpin all this will be on the statute books in the autumn with a consultative document to be published by the end of this month (March).

The Minister ended with a strong endorsement of the public service team which had taken this project so far.

He said he had often referred to the public service as containing ‘committed and talented people trapped in a system which had failed them’. He paid a tribute to those led by Ger Deering who had driven the reform process.

An interesting discussion followed with contributions from Kevin Duffy, Chairman of the Labour Court, Kieran Mulvey Chief Executive of the LRC, Ger Deering, Director of the Reform process, Brendan McGinty of IBEC and Tom O’Driscoll BL who heads up the Legal unit at SIPTU. All agreed that these were ‘landmark’ developments and in Kevin Duffy’s words ‘looked like they will happen’ a reference, one assumes to previous discussions about reform failing to get beyond the starting gate

I have one question (and it has been discussed in a recent blog). Within the commercial sphere the courts have powers (and in the UK have used them) to ‘punish’ parties who unreasonably refuse to attend at mediation or mess about when they are there.

What incentives will there be to use the early resolution service, or, based on the Halsey case principles (and others) and the likely application of Order 56A of the Rules of the Superior Courts  what adverse consequences might flow for not doing so?

Kieran Mulvey went a step further (backwards, in a way) to say that there was a need to bring solutions back to the workplace, and said that the continued juridification of the process is not helpful, a point echoed by Brendan McGinty who noted that behind the issue of employment rights is the issue of workplace relations.

Here at Workplace Solutions we are really in favour of, well workplace solutions!