The Irish Court of Appeal has granted leave to appeal to a claimant whose personal injuries claim was struck out on the basis that the matter had already been referred to what was then the Equality Tribunal, now subsumed into the Workplace Relations Commission. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) made a submission to the Court as amicus curiae in the case, warning that upholding the decision to strike out the court proceedings could curtail the access to justice rights of individuals who may have a legitimate entitlement to pursue more than one sets of proceedings.
The claimant, Mr Culkin, referred a complaint of discrimination to the Equality Tribunal and lodged a personal injuries claim in the High Court, regarding alleged bullying and harassment he suffered while employed by Sligo County Council. The Council applied to have the High Court proceedings dismissed under Section 101 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015, which prevents those who have referred a complaint to what is now the WRC from recovering damages before the courts in some circumstances. Here, the matter had already been heard by the Equality Tribunal. The High Court accordingly held that Mr Culkin could not pursue a claim for damages through the court, and struck out the proceedings as an abuse of process.
Mr Culkin sought leave to appeal this decision, and IHREC as amicus curiae submitted that this finding would have a “chilling effect” on complaints of workplace discrimination as claimants would have to be advised that they have to choose between making a statutory claim under the Employment Equality Acts before the WRC and a common law personal injuries claim before the courts. IHREC’s submission stated that the WRC undertakes to hear claims within 3 months of them being lodged, however, a personal injury may not have crystallised at that point, and the claimant may be unaware of the extent and/or value of the injury. It submitted that s101 must also be read in light of EU anti-discrimination law, and the EU law principles of effectiveness, equivalence and access to the courts.
Mr Justice Hogan held that s101 of the Employment Equality Acts does not necessarily bar subsequent personal injury claims per se where an earlier discrimination case before the WRC has failed. This ruling was based on the fact that Mr Culkin could not have combined a common law personal injuries claim with a statutory claim under the Acts, as the WRC has no jurisdiction to hear the former and the High Court has no first instance jurisdiction over the Acts. As such, cases such as Mr Culkin’s can be viewed as two separate claims.
Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of IHREC said that the judgment ‘will have significant practical implications for individuals who have experienced discrimination in the workplace, and will ensure that the measures in place to ensure that workers are protected from discrimination are effective.’
Click here for the judgment in Culkin v Sligo County Council.
For legal analysis of parallel proceedings see 'Parallel Proceedings in Employment Law: An Analysis Of The High Court Judgments in Cunningham and Culkin' by Desmond Ryan  DULJ2019 at 227.