According to item 4 of the Code of Good Practice (“the code”), the definition of dismissal contained in Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act (“LRA”) states that, when an employee is charged with misconduct, “[t]he employee should be allowed… the assistance of a trade union representative or fellow employee”. However, what happens in the instance when you do not belong to a trade union, or alternatively, a fellow employee is unwilling to assist you?
An employee does not automatically have the right to a legal representative during a disciplinary hearing held at their workplace. However, the employee may bring a formal application prior to the hearing for the presiding officer to consider allowing an external representative to assist the employee at the disciplinary hearing. When exercising such discretion, the presiding officer should take certain factors into account, and the decision in respect of such an application is final, although the employee can still refer a dispute to the CCMA or Bargaining Council for procedural unfairness.
These are the factors to be considered:
• The company policy;
• The serious nature and complexity of the matter (whether it is in respect of a point of law or the merits of the matter);
• The potential severity of the consequences of an adverse finding;
• The potential adverse effects on both parties, if legal representation is allowed in comparison to when it is not allowed.
However, what happens when the employer blatantly refuses the application, or the company policy prohibits the use of an external legal representative during a disciplinary hearing?
In the case of MEC: Department of Finance, Economic Affairs and Tourism: Northern Province vs Schoon Godwilly Mahumani, the Supreme Court of Appeal held that even when the employer’s disciplinary policy prohibits the use of an external representative, it may be allowed in certain circumstances. The court held that the employer’s policy must be viewed as a guideline, which may be departed from under appropriate circumstances. Therefore, ultimately leaving it to the presiding officers to decide.
In Molope v Mbha and Others, the Labour Court held that even though the dismissal of an employee who was charged with the unauthorised use of funds was substantively fair, the dismissal was procedurally unfair. The employee, prior to the disciplinary hearing, requested a postponement of the said hearing, in order to obtain an external representative as a fellow employee who had agreed to assist the accused employee decided to no longer assist shorty before the hearing. The employer however refused the postponement.
The decision of the presiding officer on such application is final. However, should the employee wish to appeal against this decision, the employee still has the option of referring the dispute to the CCMA or Bargaining Council for procedural unfairness upon the completion of the disciplinary process.
Therefore, should employers not disclose the option to use an external representative, via their policies or the notice of disciplinary hearing, it does not preclude employees from seeking the assistance of such representative. In the light of the above, it must still be kept in mind that it is not illegal for an employer to have a policy prohibiting assistance from external representatives. However, should the employee wish to make use of external legal representation, the request must be duly considered based on the aforementioned factors, as opposed to a mere outright denial of the request.