Discussing projectWorkplace disputes are, sadly, an unavoidable feature of professional life. Barely a week goes by without a story in the news about a worker seeking retribution in the courts after being sacked for eating biscuits in the warehouse or employees having been forced to work overly long hours without proper remuneration.

Up until now, resolving such disputes has been a fairly cluttered process, with a whole host of forums available to disgruntled employees and their representatives (i.e. trade unions), including the Labour Relations Commission, Employment Appeals Tribunal, Equality Tribunal and the National Employment Rights Authority. The rationale behind having so many different options was to try and keep disputes out of the courts. However, over the years the system has become something of a complex mess.

In a bid to simplify the way in which workplace disputes and conflicts are resolved, the Government late last year approved the drafting of new laws which will see the Workplace Relations Commission become a one-stop shop for all disputes.

The new legislation – entitled the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill 2014 – is due to be implemented in the summer of 2015, and the Government’s promise is that it will bring three main positive changes for businesses: reduced costs, increased efficiencies and a simplified process of referral.

The new Bill amends the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Acts 2001-2004, which are currently in force. These acts provide access to the Labour Court for employees who are members of trade unions but whose employers do not engage in negotiations relating to workplace disputes about things such as working hours, health and safety, overtime and unfair dismissal.

The new Bill won’t cover all companies. For example, firms which have an internal (non-union) system in place to resolve workplace issues will not be covered – although they will be required to show that the representatives overseeing internal processes are genuinely independent of the company.

What will the new Bill mean in practice for SMEs?

The main aim of the new legislation is to cut out what is known as ‘forum shopping’ – whereby different types of claims can be made in different places, often at the same time. If a desired result was not achieved in one forum, the tendency has been for the dispute to be taken to another, in the hope of a more favourable judgement. The result – disputes took excessive amounts of time to be resolved with a seemingly endless number of appeals.

When the new system kicks in, the maximum potential lifespan of a dispute will be two hearings. Workplace complaints will be heard in the first instance in the Workplace Relations Commission, while a reconfigured Labour Court will handle any appeal. Appeals to the High Court will only be possible if lodged on a point of law.

The work of the Workplace Relations Commission will be overseen by a new yet-to-be-appointed Director General. Each case will be heard and decided upon by a single ‘Adjudication Officer’ of the Commission, who will sit in private. Every decision made by the Adjudication Officer will be published.

Another principal aim of the new Bill is to have more disputes resolved earlier. Key to this is the introduction of a new Early Resolution Service (ERS), a facility which will give both parties (where relevant) an opportunity to resolve a dispute before it goes to the Commission. In the ERS, a resolution officer is appointed who sits between the two parties in a neutral manner, using employment law to try and facilitate an agreement.

Cases suitable for the ERS will be selected during the initial screening of the complaint by the Commission. Both the employee and the employer will be asked if they’d like to try for early resolution and a number of incentives will be offered to encourage them to do so – namely, the ERS is free of charge, the outcome is not publicised, and any offer(s) made by the employer are not viewed as an admission of culpability if the case ends up going to the Commission – which it will if a resolution cannot be found in the ERS.

The opportunity to save on costs should prove attractive to both employers and businesses. At the moment, legal representation is not essential, but costs cannot be awarded to either side in a dispute, regardless of the outcome, meaning clients must pay any legal fees themselves. The addition of the ERS option and the cap placed on the number of appeals will mean that the new bill should lead to a reduction in costs for both parties involved in a dispute.

Will the new system deliver the improvements sought? The verdict will come when the first cases start flowing through the Commission later this year.