Since the Labour Arbitration Tribunal started operating in 2015, it has received 25 dispute referrals but handed down only two formal decisions, Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said on Sept. 22 in the House of Assembly. Of those matters, he said, 15 remain outstanding before the tribunal, with some dating back to the body’s inception.
Mr. Wheatley said the tribunal’s “inordinate length of time taken” in resolving labour disputes has become a constitutional issue.
A recent court decision, he explained, found the tribunal in breach of section 16.9 of the Constitution, which stipulates that “every person shall have the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time before an independent and impartial court or other authority established by the law.”
Now the tribunal is getting a major overhaul to address the delays, starting with the appointment of attorney Jamal Smith as its new chairman, Mr. Wheatley said Sept. 22.
“The government decided it was necessary to restructure the tribunal to meet this human rights obligation to all the parties involved,” the minister explained. “I am confident the new chairman will ensure this happens.”
Mr. Wheatley did not offer an explanation for the tribunal’s delays.
Mr. Wheatley stressed the importance of having a well-functioning tribunal prepared to address issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. He said three new matters were referred to the tribunal since last month.
Cabinet appointed Mr. Smith — the first Virgin Islander to hold the position — as the new chair for two years beginning Aug. 1.
Since then, Mr. Wheatley said, he has implemented new procedural rules that came into force at the end of August.
“The chairman has since heard six of the outstanding matters in accordance with the new rules, and an additional outstanding matter has been discontinued,” Mr. Wheatley said, adding that hearing dates were already set for the three newest matters.
Amid the pandemic restrictions, the tribunal is gaining an online presence through the government website, the minister added. He said the tribunal began conducting video conference hearings on Sept. 1 under Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith is the founder of Thornton Smith, a general practice law firm specialising in corporate transactions, particularly involving intellectual property rights. He also served as the Social Security Tribunal chair, National Bank of the Virgin Islands board member, and BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association board chair.
The body was launched in November 2014, when the then-Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour announced that it would finally fulfil the 2010 Labour Code’s requirement to establish a Labour Arbitration Tribunal.
The body has all the power of a court in that its decisions are final and enforceable by law. Its decisions can be appealed to the High Court only if the body makes a mistake interpreting the law, Mr. Dennis said when he was appointed.
The body was designed to resolve complicated employer-employee disputes that couldn’t be resolved by the Labour Department, such as claims of wrongful or unfair dismissal.
At the time of the launch, Mr. Dennis said a number of disputes were “already in the pipeline and ready to be adjudicated.”