Chairman of the Employment Rights Tribunal (ERT) retired Appeal Court Justice Christopher Blackman, Q.C is concerned that the ability to expedite more matters and adjudicate more technical cases is hamstrung by inadequate staffing, no “fixed place of abode” and the inappropriate composition of the tribunal.
Speaking to reporters at the end of an unfair dismissal hearing at the Warrens Office Complex today, Justice Blackman bemoaned the fact that the tribunal, which he said has been made up mainly of retired trade unionists and human relations professionals, would be challenged to arbitrate cases now under the recently enacted discrimination legislation.
He pointed out that there are just four people on staff to service three tribunal panels that meet separately. Worse yet, the ERT chairman said, if the tribunal had to hear any matter involving the disabled community, none of the current commissioners, himself included, is in a position to provide the appropriate direction and guidance.
“Moreover, they just added discrimination legislation. The discrimination one has serious implications. It came into force in September and we have no means of enforcing it. Read the Discrimination Act. If we make certain decisions…we have the authority to impose fines or lock up people…[but] I have no staff to do these things,” the retired High Court judge declared.
“The other weakness in the legislation is this… — with great respect to my brothers here [fellow commissioners], they came with an industrial relations and a human relations perspective. The Act is now speaking to other things which are outside your skillset…in terms of what constitutes discrimination in terms of gender, age, disability.
“It seems to me that the Act needs to provide for people from the disabled community or otherwise to be put onto the panel to bring their perspective. The trade unionists and human resources commissioners can bring their perspectives based on their backgrounds. Who is going to give me the assistance to frame a decision about the other dynamics?” the tribunal chair asked.
Other commissioners who flanked Justice Blackman chimed in, supporting his sentiments that if the tribunal had to hear unfair dismissal matters involving the disabled community, for example, it would require “a strong technical person to deal with those types of cases”.
Despite the staffing limitations, however, the tribunal chairman pointed out that the body, as currently constituted under him, has been able to conclude “many” cases, including the settlement of unfair dismissal disputes at case management levels.
Although he did not have the statistics to hand, retired Justice Blackman reported that the ERT has made a dent in the backlog of cases but stressed that it could conclude even more, and at a faster pace, with the right kind of human and physical resources.
“It is sufficiently important to me to have these absolute numbers. I promise you that before yearend, I will have the number for all my cases we have actually dealt with,” he stated.
“Cases have been settled based on decisions we have made. We have given guidance for the future…at case management conferences. We have had cases here particularly with unrepresented people,” Justice Blackman added.
He noted that Courts Barbados had settled a case, based on principles laid down by the tribunal in other hearings, for $100 000, in favour of an employee; while a man was able to settle with Courtesy Garage without the matter having to go through the entire process.