Maxine Orr, who heads up the Employment Department at Worthingtons Solicitors, discusses Employment Law with Lawyer Monthly as featured in the attached article
Continuing with our special focus on Labour and Employment law, Lawyer Monthly speaks to Maxine Orr, Head of Employment Law Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors in Belfast. Maxine’s role involves the day to day management of the employment department from staff management, recruitment, Lexcel compliance, credit control, monitoring client service levels to client representation and advising private and public sector employers on a wide range of employment law matters. In addition she also has the responsibility firm-wide for HR and personnel matters along with all the normal partner duties that come with running a business.
Q: You represent employers in both the public and private sectors. Which one do you find raise the most complex cases?
Representing employers in the public and private sectors presents their own unique challenges.Advising and representing public sector clients differ widely.Local Council clients are essentially locally elected representatives - often employing the very constituents who have elected them to their role.Decision making, strategy and advice consequently encompasses a much broader range of considerations beyond the usual employer/employee relationship.Knowledge and experience of this sector is crucial and advising in the chamber at Council meetings brings with it an entirely new perspective and dynamic.The cases arising from the public sector are varied from unfair dismissal to group actions – most notably in the area of equal pay.Most public sector workforces have union recognition and this adds another dimension to negotiations and advice.
Private Sector employers are often very commercially motivated, understandably so in the current economic climate.This can result in advice and strategic decision making focusing on the commercial/financial impact of an employment law issue more so than with public sector cases.SMEs make up 98% of the private sector, and account for over 65% of employment in Northern Ireland. Consequently, there is also less likely to be large scale Union involvement with private sector clients in Northern Ireland.Regardless of the sector, it is essential that I am in tune with the requirements of the client and tailor my service and advices to ensure an outcome that compliments their needs yet is compliant with employment law – that in itself is a daily challenge for all employment lawyers.Employees are often the biggest asset a business invests in and most business decisions will have an impact on staff in some respects – excellent employment advice must go hand in hand with this.
Q: What challenges do you find particularly rewarding to overcome within your work as an employment solicitor?
The dynamic nature of employment law is an on-going challenge but it also ensures that my working life is constantly mixed, diverse and never boring!
Q: You are well-experienced in all matters of employment law; which area do you find most interesting? Why?
Discrimination law and gender equality is an area of law that continues to fascinate me.Women make up 47 per cent of the UK workforce, but for every pound a man makes a woman makes 80 pence.I have always been passionate about women’s rights and gender inequality - it’s a cultural issue that affects the workplace and I strongly believe that workplace culture must change.Equal pay, sex discrimination, maternity rights, pregnancy rights and flexible working are dynamic areas of law which reflect the very practical issues that half our workforce have to address on a daily basis.It still astounds me how these issues continue to permeate the workplace 40 years after the introduction of the sex discrimination legislation.The challenges for working females persist– the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap, the “old boy network” and the lack of women in senior roles in many sectors – most notably the judiciary and politics – still dominate the headlines and these types of cases continue to appear before our courts and tribunals.Making employers accountable through the legal process is only one way of addressing these issues, which is where employment lawyers can play their part.It’s the culture and pre-conceptions around work-life balance that contributes to the problem – for example the belief that “presenteeism” is a requirement to promotion,needs to be examined, especially in this modern age of technology.Employment law is certainly one way of effecting change, yet litigation on these issues is should not be the only show in town, it should be a last resort and I believe we can do better for our fellow females.
Q: As an accredited mediator, what would you say are the employment matters that are most suited to mediation?
Mediation as a form of alternative dispute resolution in the workplace plays a vital role in preserving workplace relationships especially at the initial stages of any dispute.Not all employment disputes require formal determination by Tribunal or Courts as a means of resolution, however where discrimination claims have been issued against a colleague or superior and both members of staff remain in the workplace – mediation is often the only option to avoid further claims for example, unfair dismissal, victimisation or constructive dismissal.Mediation is less stressful and is a solution based approach that requires employee engagement and participation.This, in turn reaps benefits for the business from staff retention to staff productively.A major advantage of mediation is the early intervention approach – before disputes become entrenched or litigious to the extent that employee relationships disintegrate beyond repair.
Q: Have you seen an increase in the popularity of mediation for employment cases since you became accredited?
Mediation has always been an integral part of dispute resolution in the workplace and although there is increased use mediation in other areas of the law in Northern Ireland, I feel it has always been a feature within the employment law arena.In Northern Ireland, the Labour Relations Agency has its own arbitration scheme as an alternative to the Tribunal System and the conciliation and mediation services they have go hand in hand with this.Workplace investigations and management consultants will often recommend mediation as part of any outcome and I believe this trend will continue.
Q: How satisfied are you personally with the UK employment law framework currently?
In Northern Ireland, there has been an increased divergence with Great Britain in employment legislation.The Equality Act 2010 does not apply in Northern Ireland and although a Single Equality Bill has been on the agenda in the Stormont government for many years, this has not progressed.We have also retained the statutory dispute regulations in relation to disciplinary and dismissal procedures, the qualification period of 1 year for dismissal claims has not been extended, tribunal fees does not exist in NI to name some of the most obvious differences but there are numerous more which cause particular difficulties for employers who operate and employ staff in both jurisdictions.This drift looks set to continue and is of a particular concern to employment law practitioners especially when a considerable amount of employment law legislation emanates from Europe.An added dimension for employment lawyers in Northern Ireland it the Republic of Ireland jurisdiction as many organisations employ staff across the three legal jurisdictions.The Working Time Regulations and their application has been a constant headache for practitioners now resulting in case law from CJEU re-writing our domestic legislation – this is most certainly an area that is crying out for legislative reform and simplification.
Q: What would you change if you could?
The Working Time Regulations are a particular bug-bear of mine at the moment but all the confusion creates work for employment lawyers so that has a positive spin for the profession.
Maxine Orr is a Partner in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors Belfast, specialising in employment law.