A Note on the Supreme Court’s Decision in Zalewski v Adjudication Officer [2021] IESC 24

The landmark Supreme Court decision of Zalewski v Adjudication Officer and WRC, Ireland and the Attorney General [2021] IESC 24 has brought about significant procedural changes in terms of how employment disputes are determined in the Workplace Relations Commission (“WRC”).

Facts:

Mr Zalewski’s employment was terminated in 2016 and he took an unfair dismissal claim to the WRC on foot of this. During his hearing, an application was granted to adjourn the hearing in order to allow an absent witness to give evidence at a later stage.

At the adjourned hearing, Mr Zalewski was told that an Adjudicating Officer had already decided the matter in favour of the Respondent, based upon preliminary written submissions only and dismissed Mr Zalewski’s claim without allowing the full hearing to proceed.

Mr Zalewski lodged an appeal to the Labour Court and was simultaneously granted leave to seek judicial review before the High Court. In the High Court, Mr Zalewski argued that the process leading to the WRC’s decision was unconstitutional and that the WRC was administering justice which was outside of its remit. Mr Justice Simons had found that the activities of the WRC did not constitute the administration of justice, due to the requirement of enforcement through the District Court. The judicial review application was ultimately appealed to the Supreme Court.  

 

Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court held that although the WRC was engaged in the administration of justice, Article 37 of the Constitution expressly granted a power to non-judicial bodies to exercise ‘limited functions and powers of a judicial nature’. 

However, the Supreme Court, whilst criticising the lack of an express provision to allow cross-examination in the WRC, held that the following two procedural aspects of the WRC were incompatible and repugnant to the Constitution:

  1. The blanket prohibition on WRC hearings being held in public pursuant to s. 41(13) of the Workplace Relations Act 2015 and s. 8(6) of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977, as amended; and
  2. The absence of any provision for the administration of an oath or the cross-examination of witnesses in the WRC under Part 4 of the Workplace Relations Act 2015 or s. 8 of the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977.

 

Effect of Zalewski on Future WRC Hearings

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Zalewski has brought about a number of profound changes to the operation of the WRC, effective from 6 April 2021:

  • All WRC hearings involving the administration of justice are open to the public now and parties’ names will not be anonymised. This change can act as an additional negotiation tool for employees, as adverse publicity can have serious reputational repercussions for employers involved in a WRC hearing.
  • Where there is a direct conflict of evidence before the WRC, the Adjudicating Officer is empowered to administer an oath or affirmation. Whilst requiring a witness to swear an oath does not dramatically increase hearing costs, the introduction of written witness statements like in the UK could increase costs substantially and add to hearing time.
  • New cross-examination guidelines for witnesses and a penalty for giving false evidence will be introduced. Legislation from the Oireachtas is expected on this shortly.

 

Conclusion

Whilst the Zalewski decision is a welcome development from a fair-procedures point of view, it remains to be seen whether the decision will result in a more efficient, fair and streamlined resolution of workplace disputes or whether it will only serve to subject the WRC to the extensive delays its predecessor, the Employment Appeals Tribunal was plagued with. 

 

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