The High Court has dismissed a challenge to the constitutionality of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) procedures in the case of Zalewski v Workplace Relations Commission  IEHC 178.
The applicant Mr Zalewski alleged that the powers afforded to the WRC involve the administration of justice which are contrary to Article 34 of the Irish Constitution. The plaintiff's alternative argument was that the WRC prescribed procedures were deficient in a variety of ways. The High Court rejected both arguments.
The case arose out of the dismissal of Mr Zalewski from his post as a supervisor on foot of which he lodged claims for unfair dismissal and payment in lieu of notice to the WRC. The case was listed for hearing on the 26 October 2016 and commenced briefly on that date with written submissions and other documents being received by the Adjudication Officer. An adjournment application was made on behalf of the employer and ultimately the hearing was rescheduled for the 13 December 2016. In the words of Mr Justice Simons, "events then took what can only be described as a bizarre turn". The parties attended for hearing on the 13 December 2016 but were informed that a decision had already issued - a written decision was subsequently issued bearing the date of the 16 December 2016 - 3 days after the purported rescheduled hearing date and without any hearing having in fact taken place. The applicant alleged that the flaws in how his case was handled were indicative of a "systemic or structural failing" in how the WRC operates. The State had previously conceded that the WRC decision which issued was invalid due to an administrative error and agreed to it being set aside. It disagreed with the applicant's submissions that the procedures underpinning the WRC were flawed.
The primary argument
Mr Zalewski claimed that the WRC administered justice in a manner which was contrary to the Constitution. The High Court held that while the WRC had many features of a court and exhibited many characteristics of the administration of justice it lacked one crucial feature – the ability to enforce its own decisions. A party seeking to enforce a WRC order must bring an application to the District Court. The High Court noted that when this was done in relation to an order for re-engagement or re-instatement under the Unfair Dismissals legislation that the District Court had the power in those circumstances to alter the redress to provide for compensation instead. The High Court felt that this was a significant curtailment of the powers of the WRC and in those circumstances, it could not be said that Adjudication Officers and the Labour Court were carrying out the administration of justice.
The alternative argument
The applicant also alleged several deficiencies in the prescribed procedures of the WRC. The effect of these deficiencies deprived him of his legal and personal rights. These deficiencies are set out below and the High Court responded to each allegation as follows:
- The applicant queried the fact that Adjudication Officers did not have to be legally qualified. The High Court held that as Adjudication Officers were not involved in the administration of justice, they did not need to be legally qualified.
- The applicant submitted that as evidence was not taken on oath, this represented a fundamental flaw in the conduct of WRC procedures. The High Court found that this did not amount to a procedural flaw as it is an integral part of the WRC procedures that they were to be grounded in informality, more accessible and less expensive for claimants.
- He also claimed that the lack of statutory right of cross examination amounted to a major constitutional flaw. The High Court found that adjudication officers had an implied right to cross examine in certain circumstances and there was nothing in the statutory framework under the 2015 Act which precluded such a right to cross-examine. If for some reason this was not offered, then this could be remedied by the mechanics of a judicial review.
- The final limb of his argument was that as hearings weren’t in public, they were unconstitutional. The Court found that the requirement that justice should be administered in public does not need to be "read across" to decision making by non-judicial bodies. It also noted that it was remedied by the fact that any appeal to the Labour Court was in public.
The alleged deficiencies raised by the applicant regarding the extent to which procedures adopted in the WRC comply with the Constitution have long been a concern for employment law practitioners and other interested parties. They were raised as concerns as far back as 2012 - during the consultation phase prior to the Workplace Relations Act 2015 being enacted. This decision is a significant development and as per Mr Justice Simons "this case is probably as good a "test case" as any by reference to which the constitutional validity of the procedures under Part 4 of the Workplace Relations Act 2015 might be assessed". However, given that other aspects of this case have already been successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, it is entirely possibly that this decision may also be appealed.