On 4 December 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union (the “CJEU”) ruled that the Workplace Relations Commission (the “WRC”), the statutory body established for the resolution of employment related disputes in Ireland, has the authority to disapply or ignore a rule of national law that is contrary to EU law. Until now, this power was confined to the High Court. This ruling has significant implications for all national bodies established by law to ensure enforcement of EU law in a particular area as it potentially extends their powers to disregard any provision of national legislation that is contrary to EU law.
The decision arises from a preliminary ruling by the Supreme Court to the CJEU in the case of Minister for Justice and Equality and The Commissioner of the Garda Síochána v Workplace Relations Commission & Others. The case involved three individuals who were refused permission to join An Garda Siochana (the police service in Ireland) because they were older than the maximum recruitment age of 35. They complained to the Equality Tribunal that this upper age limit constituted discrimination on the grounds of age, which was prohibited by EU and Irish law. The Minister for Justice and Equality (the “Minister”) contended that only courts established under the Constitution had the power to decide whether to disregard a provision of national law.
The High Court held that the Equality Tribunal did not have jurisdiction to disapply national law where it is incompatible with EU law, this being a power given to the High Court only. The Equality Tribunal (now the WRC) appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. It referred a request for a preliminary ruling on the matter to the CJEU.
The CJEU Judgment
The CJEU referred to the primacy of EU law meaning that national courts, in the exercise of their jurisdiction, have a duty to give full effect to the provisions of EU law and refuse to apply conflicting provisions of national law.
In deciding on the question referred, the CJEU noted that the WRC was established by the Irish legislature to ensure compliance with the Directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation. It noted that the WRC is required, due to the primacy of EU law, to ensure that individuals receive the full legal protections derived from EU law. It noted that this includes the WRC, of its own motion, disapplying or disregarding any provision of national legislation where it is contrary to EU law. The CJEU noted that if the WRC could not do so, then EU law in the areas of equality in employment would be rendered less effective.
The CJEU also clarified that the WRC do not need to request or await the contrary provisions of national law to be set aside. Importantly, the CJEU noted in its judgment that it has repeatedly held that the duty to disapply or disregard national legislation that is contrary to EU law is owed by all organs of the State, including administrative authorities.
This decision is noteworthy as it means that the power to disapply or disregard national law if it conflicts with EU law is not confined to courts of law. It potentially extends those powers to all national bodies and administrative authorities in EU member states which are tasked with applying EU law. In the area of enforcement of employment rights, this decision will likely have an immediate impact on decisions issued by the adjudication service of the WRC where provisions of Irish legislation are identified as being contrary to EU law.
1. Case C-378/17
2. Directive 2000/78/EC
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