High Court Upholds Labour Court OWTA Determination
The case involved a company involved in the wholesale supply of fruit and vegetables to the catering industry. The appellant is a Polish national who worked for the defendant company as a warehouse operative and relief van driver. The appellant originally brought a claim based on the arrangements for the taking of breaks throughout the working day as per section 12 and the employers requirement for the employee to work additional hours as per section 17 of the Organisation of Working Time Act, 1997(the “Act”). Section 12 outlines the minimum break periods for employees during the working day as being when an employee works for a period of more than 4 hours and 30 minutes they are permitted to a break of at least 15 minutes. It also states that ‘an employer shall not require an employee to work for a period of more than 6 hours without allowing him or her a break of at least 30 minutes’. Section 17 (2) outlines that if an employee is required to work any hours in excess of their contracted hours of work the employer must notify the employee as soon as is reasonably possible.
The original claim brought before the Labour Relations Commission resulted in an award of €300 in compensation. On appeal the Labour Court found that there was no structure in place allowing access to designated breaks throughout the working day for employees. The respondent’s defence to this was that there were normally interruptions in work during which employees could take their breaks. Finding that this did not meet the requirements of section 12 of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 the Court awarded €600, which it believed was fair and equitable in the circumstances. The Labour Court stated that there was some element of non-compliance by the employer in relation to section 17 but it was minor and inconsequential.
The appellant appealed this determination based on a point of law as set out at s. 28(1) of the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. The Appellant was dissatisfied with the compensation awarded to him by the Labour Court claiming the amount was inadequate and didn’t follow the relevant precedent. The appellant argued that the principles of effectiveness, deterrence and proportionality as established in the European Court of Justice’s judgment in the case of Von Colson and Kamann v Land Nordrhein-Westfalen 2 were ignored and that the award was merely a nominal one. This was argued to be also contrary to the practice of the Labour Court and the law relating to minimum working time limits. The appellant also claimed a de minimis gloss 2 was wrongly applied in determining the compensation available.
The Von Colson judgment requires sanctions to act as a real deterrent for employers. The compensation must be adequate for the damage sustained and more than nominal compensation. The Court also held that National Courts may interpret and apply the legislation adopted to conform with Community Law, as far as national law discretion allows.
Considering the above judgment and a number of other relevant cases, Birmingham J found that the sum of €600 was not merely a nominal sum. He also found that the Labour Court was aptly capable of assessing how the alleged breaches should be categorised, and acknowledged it does so by using a scale. For this reason he believed Courts should be careful when dealing with specialist tribunal decisions such as that of the Labour Court. The Court was in agreement with the judgment in Ashford Castle Limited v Services Industrial Professional Technical Union 4 whereby the specialist expertise of the Labour Court was credited and found to be a superior standard than that of the High Court. Attention was also drawn to the judgment of Hamilton C.J. in Henry Denny and Sons (Ireland) Limited v Minister for Social Welfare 5 where the Court held that courts should be slow to interfere with the decisions of expert bodies. However, in this case Justice Birmingham stated that if the Court believed that the Labour Court was unaware of or ignoring the principles established in Von Colson then the High Court would readily intervene.
The appellants attempt to rely on earlier precedence in which there were higher monetary awards failed. Attention was drawn to the case of Goode Concrete Limited v Karpauskas 6 in which there was no provision to take breaks within the working day. The Court held that there is a duty to provide breaks and it is a ‘fundamental social right in European Law’. However in the Piotr Bryszewski case the High Court felt that the facts of this case and a number of others differed and the awards had been proportionate to the level of the breaches. The argument regarding the de minimis gloss also failed. It was held to be ill-founded and of no substance as there was no evidence that the Court had a minimum level below which it would not involve itself.
In summary, the High Court found that the Labour Court, as a specialist statutory body, was well-equipped to deal with claims relating to employer breaches etc. The High Court reaffirmed its reluctance to interfere with any determinations from these expert tribunals unless there has been a clear failure by the body to assess the damages correctly or an ignorance of the relevant precedent or principles. Therefore, the appeal failed.
1 [2013 No. 153 M.C.A.]
2 (Case C-14/83)  E.C.R. 1891
3 Where the Court does not concern itself with what it considers small matters/trifles
4  IEHC 201
5  1 I.R. 34
6 WTC/06/63, 22 February 2008