History of the Employment Court

A specialist industrial relations court has existed in New Zealand since 1894. The Employment Court and its predecessors have their foundations in the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894. The introduction of this legislation dramatically changed the structure of trade unionism and altered the interaction between employees, employers and the state.

Against the backdrop of low wages, unemployment, the arrival of trade unionism, New Zealand's first labour dispute and government debt, the need for a formalised industrial relations system gained momentum. The system of conciliation and compulsory arbitration was promoted as a method of preventing industrial strife and solving industrial disputes peacefully.

The catalyst for a formal system was William Pember Reeves, New Zealand's and the world's first Minister of Labour, from 1892 to 1896. Reeves, a member of the newly formed Liberal Government, and a Fabian socialist, introduced legislation in 1891 providing for a compulsory conciliation and arbitration system for resolving industrial disputes. Reeves' initiatives culminated in the passing of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894.

The Employment Court as it exists today can trace its origins through various institutional forms enacted by a succession of legislation to the Court of Arbitration established by the 1894 Act.

Court of Arbitration (1894–1973)

The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 created the Court of Arbitration, a specialist court for hearing industrial disputes, making and interpreting awards, and setting minimum standards of employment. The court also had the power to set and adjust wages. The court initially comprised a Supreme Court Judge, a union representative, and an employers' representative. But from 1937, it had its own judge (except for one year, 1939).

Industrial Court (1974–1978)

Created by the Industrial Relations Act 1973, the court's structure now comprised direct nominees from the Employers Federation and the Federation of Labour. The court was granted the jurisdiction to make awards and determine ‘disputes of right’.

‘Disputes of rights’ were defined as a discord regarding the interpretation or application of an award or collective agreement. The distinction also covers disputes concerning personal grievances, demarcation disputes, and conflicts involving the carrying out of a contract of employment related to an award or collective agreement.

‘Disputes of interest’ were defined as disputes where the aim of the parties was to secure an award establishing worker entitlements. Involvement in this process was the responsibility of the Industrial Commission.

Arbitration Court (1978–1987)

Created by the Industrial Relations Amendment Act 1977, the Arbitration Court had the combined jurisdiction of the former Industrial Commission and the Industrial Court. The court's structure continued to comprise direct nominees from the Employers Federation and the Federation of Labour. The court also presided over many single-sector tribunals including the State Services Tribunal. The title and role of Chief Judge was established for the first time.

Labour Court (1987–1991)

Created for the purpose of hearing personal grievances and demarcation disputes, the court comprised a judge and two panel members appointed by the Judge from lists nominated by organisations representative of workers and employers. The court had sole jurisdiction over injunctions and damages when these occurred due to lockouts or strikes.

With the passing of the Labour Relations Act 1987 and the State Sector Act 1988, the court's jurisdiction extended beyond the private sector to include the public sector. The court was granted equal jurisdiction to review the statutory powers of decision made under the Labour Relations Act 1987 and the State Sector Act 1988 and the institutions these Acts established.

All specialist industrial courts until this time were based in Wellington. The Labour Relations Act 1987 saw the decentralisation of the court to registries located in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Employment Court (1991 to present)

Established by the Employment Contracts Act 1991 the Court, together with the Employment Tribunal, had exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine proceedings founded on an employment contract. It had both an appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals against Employment Tribunal decisions and a first instance jurisdiction including injunctive relief, plus the common law remedy of wrongful dismissal.

The Employment Court continues under the Employment Relations Act 2000(external link) with jurisdiction to hear and determine challenges against Employment Relations Authority determinations, questions of interpretation of law, review and injunctions in respect of strikes and lockouts.

The Court comprises a judge sitting alone. At the direction of the Chief Judge, a full court of at least three judges may hear cases.

Find historical Acts at New Zealand Acts as Enacted NZLII(external link).

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