A landmark ruling at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), in a long-running test case to determine whether the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) has the power to disapply national law that conflicts with EU law, has been welcomed by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC).
The original challenge stemmed from the cases of three men who sought to join the Garda Síochána between 2005 and 2007, but who were refused entry based on the Garda Síochána (Admission and Appointments) Regulations 1988, which set the upper age limit for entry as a trainee at 35.
IHREC represented two of the men at the centre of the decade-long age discrimination case and, in June 2018, appeared in Luxembourg to represent them.
The commission argued that, in order to provide an effective remedy where issues of discrimination are raised under equality legislation, the WRC must have the authority under EU law to disapply national law where it conflicts with EU laws.
The court agreed, and its Grand Chamber at the CJEU handed down its judgment that EU law requires not only the courts but all the bodies of member states (including, in this case, the WRC) to give full effect to EU rules.
In paragraph 48 of the judgment, the CJEU states that, without this provision “…the EU rules in the area of equality in employment and occupation would be rendered less effective”.
The Court of Justice underlined the fundamental importance of giving proper effect to EU equality law and providing an effective remedy.
Following their rejection, the men brought complaints before the Equality Tribunal (the predecessor to the WRC) on the basis that the maximum age limit for entry to the Garda Síochána amounted to age discrimination under the Employment Equality Act 1998, which gives effect to the EU directive on equal treatment in employment.
The then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform brought a case to the High Court, challenging the authority of the Equality Tribunal to even consider the complaints lodged by the men seeking the disapplication of the Garda regulations for conflicting with EU equality law.
The High Court ruled that the Equality Tribunal was not entitled to declare that a national law was inconsistent with EU law, this being a power given to the High Court under the Constitution.
This case was appealed to the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court found that the WRC did not have power under national law to disregard legislation, it referred a question to the CJEU specifically to decide whether a body such as the WRC has the authority, under EU law, to make a binding legal declaration where national and EU laws are inconsistent.
Had this decision not been overturned by the CJEU, those seeking to argue that national law conflicting with EU law be disapplied would have to start their cases, not in the WRC, but in the High Court.
IHREC said that this presented significant difficulties in terms of equity of access to justice for all. Given the strategic issues of principle raised in this case, the commission provided legal representation to argue points around effective remedies, access to justice, EU and equality law before the CJEU.
Under its legal functions, set out in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, the commission can, in certain circumstances, provide legal assistance to a person who wishes to bring a matter of human rights or equality of treatment before the courts or the WRC.