The three-year-old Employment Rights Tribunal has put a halt to any further public hearings of unfair dismissal cases since its board was replaced on August 12.
And its new chairman is waiting on lawmakers to change the law governing the tribunal before proceeding further.
Retired Justice Christopher Blackman, who replaced attorney Hal Gollop QC, as chairman of the nine-member tribunal, told Barbados TODAY this afternoon that there were some aspects of the tribunal’s act which caused the jurist concern and must first be amended before any new cases are heard.
“While we have not been public in terms of having a hearing, the committee . . . the tribunal has met . . . and we are in the process of finalizing some amendments we want to send which we want to have the Minister get approval for to amend the Act to address some concerns we have. But in the meantime, I have met with the Registrar of the Tribunal Mr [Winston] Chase and we have identified a number of matters we can start on,” he said.
The former judge said one of the main changes he proposed related to the oath of office of the commissioners on the tribunal.
“There is one basic one that might seem a little trivial, but the tribunal is given the powers of a court, particularly when you add the matters of the sexual harassment legislation to it. But the tribunal itself isn’t being sworn by anyone, yet it is being empowered to administer oaths to people. And it seems to me to be a little bit of an anomaly, that we are invested with the right to swear people under the Commissions of Enquiry Act, but we ourselves have not been given an oath of office to do our job in the way that commissions of tribunals are supposed to do,” Justice Blackman declared, though adding that as a judge of nearly 20 years he declared the matter important.
The retired judicial officer recalled telling Labour Minister Colin Jordan that two months ago he had to fly to Trinidad “for three minutes” to swear an oath as chairman of the CARICOM Competition Commission, and yet “doesn’t have half the authority and responsibility of the Employment Rights Tribunal”.
Among other concerns which the chairman wants addressed before the tribunal resumes public business are logistics issues.
“I would not want to speak on them while they are working on them to get them sorted out,” Justice Blackman said.
The new tribunal chief also disclosed that Government has assured him the tribunal would now be properly funded and equipped so that two panels of commissioners can sit concurrently to hear cases.
“Up to now that has not been the case, but that has been rectified. I have that assurance that two panels can sit more or less concurrently. So that would help a lot,” Justice Blackman said.
Registrar of the Tribunal Winston Chase told Barbados TODAY that there are currently 300 cases in their system, but Justice Blackman explained that several of those matters were filed prematurely and therefore did not qualify as authentic unfair dismissal cases.
“It [the backlog] is not as bad as it appears. Mr Chase went through the files and at this point he told me…over 200 files have been open, but all of them can’t said to be [genuine] cases, because there are processes…one file just had a letter of complaint; no further action has been taken by the person. So we have to write that person and ask ‘why do you want to do about this?’ So you really can’t see that as a backlog. Some other cases they may have been put before the tribunal prematurely and it ought to have been with the Labour Department before reaching us,” the ex-judge said.
In giving further insight into the cases on file, the Registrar revealed that since the tribunal started under former chairman Gollop in May 2015, it has made decisions on or settled 38 cases including the landmark decision in which Gollop ruled that scores of National Conservation Commission (NCC) workers were unfairly dismissed. He ordered they be paid up to 52 weeks wages in compensation.
Chase also disclosed that five cases are pending for decisions, one was sent back for conciliation, two have been partially heard and 20 are now ready to be determined as soon as the public hearings begin under the newly-constituted tribunal.
The appointees on the tribunal comprises chairman Blackman, deputy Emmerson Graham, a former magistrate, and attorney Ryan Omar Drakes, the ex-deputy who will remain until year-end.
The employers’ representatives are Hartley Richards, John Williams and Ed Bushell and workers’ representatives are Beverly Beckles, Frederick Forde and Ulric Sealy.
Drakes, who chaired one of the panels under the “old” tribunal will on October 9 hand down his decision in the unfair dismissal case of Emmerson Bascombe who is contesting his termination from the Barbados Workers Union Cooperative Credit Union. firstname.lastname@example.org