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The CCMA is constantly overloaded with cases, most of them unfair dismissals

Ivan Israelstam


When employers and employees receive notices to attend a hearing at the Commission for Conciliation, Arbitration and Mediation (CCMA) they need to look very carefully to see what type of process has been set down. Parties arriving at the CCMA need to agree beforehand on whether a mediation process and an arbitration hearing should occur on the same day. The CCMA is constantly overloaded with cases hearing in excess of 140 000 cases a year, many of them being disputes involving allegedly unfair dismissals. This can result in backlogs and delays in the hearing and resolution of disputes.
          
As a consequence the Labour Relations Act (LRA) as amended in 2002 provides for a speedier dispute resolution process, called con-arb, which stands for conciliation-arbitration. This hybrid process is most frequently used and the old system of "conciliation now and arbitration later" is seldom applied in the normal course of events. Regardless of whether the old or the new system is applied, the process always begins with conciliation. This is a peace-making process whereby a CCMA or bargaining council (BC) mediator tries to assist the employer and employee to reach an out-of-court agreement. It is an exercise that is intended to end in a settlement agreement.
           
The commissioner has no authority to make an award (judgment), and there is no need to as the parties will have come to an agreement themselves. On the other hand, arbitration is a judicial-type process that usually occurs if a conciliated settlement is not achieved. That is, it is Step 2 in the process if Step 1 (conciliation) fails to resolve the matter. At arbitration the employer and employee do not negotiate an agreement. Instead, they bring and present evidence as in any court case. Then the arbitrator, after hearing all the evidence, makes a finding as to which party was in the wrong.
          
Con-arb is when, instead of scheduling the arbitration for a later date, it is held on the same day, the very minute that conciliation fails! The employee is not required to apply for arbitration; it occurs automatically the very moment the conciliator declares that conciliation has failed. Thus, the parties have no time after the conciliation meeting to prepare their evidence and arguments for the arbitration! Con-arb is not compulsory for all types of dispute. It is compulsory when the dispute concerns the dismissal of an employee for any reason relating to probation as well when it relates to any unfair labour practice relating to probation.
       
In addition, if neither party objects to con-arb, then con-arb is likely to take place even if probation is not involved, provided that the dispute concerns:

  • A non-strike dismissal for conduct or capacity.
  • Constructive dismissal.
  • The employer's failure to substantially preserve the employment conditions of employees when transferring them in terms of section 197 of the LRA.
  • An employee who does not know the reason for the dismissal.
  • An unfair labour practice.

                  
Therefore, on receiving any con-arb notice, a party not wanting con-arb must lodge a formal objection at least seven days in advance of the set hearing date. However, such an objection will not be valid if the dispute concerns an unfair dismissal relating to probation or an unfair labour practice relating to probation.
               
It is essential for employers and employees who receive con-arb notices to:

  • Realise straight away that it is a con-arb that has been scheduled.
  • Understand what con-arb means for them in practice.
  • Begin immediately with preparations for the con-arb.

      
This is particularly so because the parties seldom get more than 14 days advance notice of a con-arb. The parties need to enter into intensive preparations the moment they receive a con-arb notification because 14 days is very little time for purposes of preparation.

       
Included in these preparations should be:

  • The preparation of the witnesses of truthful, relevant and accurate testimonies.
  • Collecting and preparing documentary and other evidence.
  • Responses to anticipated evidence that the opposing party could bring.
  • Preparation of case arguments and case law.

Ivan Israelstam is chief executive of Labour Law Management Consulting. He can be contacted on 011-888-7944 or
Our appreciation to Ivan and The Star newspaper for permission to publish this article…

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