Belfast Telegraph

Business Soapbox: Gareth Walls

Both employers and staff will have to get to grips with a number of legislation changes within the workplace

October 2011 has proved to have had a busy start for employment law in Northern Ireland, with a number of legislation changes which will affect both employers and employees across the country.

For a start, employers can no longer rely on the default retirement age to retire employees without fear of claims of age discrimination being issued. Until now, this had been 65 years old. Although this change doesn't mean that employers can't compulsorily retire employees, it does make it extremely risky if they seek to do so.

Such matters require sensitivity, balanced with a pragmatic view of the needs of the business. There may be, therefore, an anticipated move away from default retirement towards periodic review and appraisal for all employees, at all stages of their career.

The introduction of the Agency Workers Regulations 2010 (AWR) in England and Wales and their proposed introduction in Northern Ireland from December 5, 2011, means that, after a 12-week qualifying period, an agency worker will be entitled to the same basic working and employment conditions as if he/she had been employed by the hirer on day one of the assignment, including pay.

In light of these changes, hirers of agency workers will need to examine their business and resourcing needs, which may well result in some organisations concluding that it is preferable to use agency staff employed through umbrella companies rather than the traditional type of agency worker.

October 1 also saw an increase in the National Minimum Wage rate from £5.93 to £6.08 for workers aged 21 and over, at £4.98 for those aged 18-20 and £3.68 for workers above school leaving age but under the age of 18. Last week also saw an announcement by the Chancellor, George Osborne, of two important proposed legislation changes, intended to reduce the number of employment/industrial tribunal cases and boost the local economy by encouraging employers to recruit more freely without the fear of claims.

Firstly, the qualifying period for unfair dismissal will be increased from one year to two years with effect from April 2012. Secondly, fees will be introduced for tribunal claims and, from the sketchy information currently available, it appears that an upfront fee of £250 will be applicable when lodging an ET1 (the form containing the allegations), with a further fee of £1,000 payable by a claimant when the hearing is listed and a higher fee if the claim is over £30,000. These fees will be refunded if the claimant wins the case, forfeited if they lose and waived altogether if the claimant demonstrates that he/she does not have the ability to pay. Employers should take note of these changes and ensure that their employment policies and procedures are up to date going forward.

Gareth Walls is Partner and head of employment at A and L Goodbody

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