Different rules – Labour Court vs High Court


On 27 March 2018, the Labour Court (“the LC”) handed down Judgment in Liquid Telecommunication (Pty) Ltd v Valerie Carmichael-Brown [2018] 8 BLLR 804 (LC), which dealt with the question whether or not the Uniform Rules of Court i.e. the High Court Rules) are or can be applicable in a dispute initiated by way of a Statement of claim before the LC (i.e. trial proceedings before the LC). The case, essentially, contrasts the very legalistic and formalistic High Court litigation with the less formalistic and less legalistic litigation of the LC.

Background facts

On 7 December 2017, Ms Carmichael–Brown (“the Employee”) filed a Statement of Claim in the LC claiming damages against Liquid Telecommunication (“the Employer”) in the amount of R15 million. The claim was for damages caused by the premature termination of her fixed term contract of employment by the Employer, which termination occurred on 29 August 2017. The R15 million claimed was the salary that the Employee would have earned for the remainder of the contract period had she not been dismissed.

In response, the Employer filed an Exception to the Statement of Claim, mainly, on the ground that the Employee’s Statement of Claim did not comply with Rule 18(6) of the High Court Rules in that it was not drafted with sufficient particularity as required by that Rule.

In the Labour Court

In deciding the Exception application, the LC held that the Labour Court has its own Rules that regulate proceedings brought before it, which Rules were specifically produced for the LC by the LC Rules Board. The LC held further that the reason for the Labour Court having its own Rules is to fulfil one of the primary purposes of the Labour Relations Act of 1995 (“the LRA”), which is to establish a system of dispute resolution that is less formal, more efficient, expeditious and inexpensive. The LC held that the LC Rules are an integral part of achieving this purpose.

The LC held that, as a general point of departure, the High Court Rules are not applicable to proceedings before the LC. However, the LC went further, Rule 11(3) of the LC Rules provides for the adoption of any procedure that the LC deems appropriate in circumstances where a situation arises for which the LC Rules do not provide. This is the basis on which the LC has previously, in its discretion, adopted some of the provisions of the High Court Rules. However, the LC emphasised, this this limited application of the High Court Rules is not the gateway to the wholesale importation and application of those Rules in labour disputes before the LA, and that the discretion in that regard is for the LC to exercise, and not the litigants.

The LC confirmed that Rule 6 of the LC Rules governs the referral of disputes to the LC by way of a Statement of Claim. In this regard, the LC held that the requirements of Rule 6 are significantly less stringent than those of Rule 18 of the High Court Rules, which is in line with the stated purposes of the LRA as enumerated above.

Returning to the Exception application, the LC held that the Employee’s Statement of Claim in this case complied with the requirements of Rule 6 in that it concisely recorded the relevant facts on which the Employee relied, as well as the legal issues that arise, as required by Rule 6 of the LC Rules. The LC held further that the Employer’s ’s persistence with its Exception was nothing more than an abuse of the Court’s process, and an attempt to frustrate the Employee’s case, which warranted the granting of costs on an attorney and own client (i.e. punitive) scale.

Conclusion and Comment

This case highlights the vast differences between litigation in the High Court, as governed by the High Court Rules, and litigation in the Labour Court, as governed by the Rules of the Labour Court. It further highlights the need to keep in mind the stated purposes of the LRA when parties contemplate Pleading in proceedings before the LC, the LC also being a Court of Law and Equity. [See, in this regard: Randwater v Stoop and Another [2013] 2 BLLR 162 (LAC), at paragraph 33.]

While the Judgement acknowledges that there may be gaps in the LC Rules, a litigating party cannot simply import the fitting Rule from the High Court Rules, particularly where such a High Court Rule and/or the manner in which the party seeking to rely on it seeks to apply it in a manner that would have the effect of making the process of litigation before the LC more stringent or overly technical, formalistic and/or legalistic. The punitive costs order granted against the Employer in this case must be received as the stern warning by the LC that it seeks to sound.