Supreme Court Declares: Labour Act Cannot Oust High Court Jurisdiction

images-3On 26 July 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the High Court has concurrent jurisdiction with the Labour Commission in hearing cases of unfair termination of employment[1]. This also means that the High Court, just as the Labour Commission, is able to order the reinstatement of an employee (a remedy which previously was said to be unknown to the Courts at Common law).

The facts of the case are straight forward. The Applicant was an employee of the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB). ADB declared the Applicant redundant. ADB paid the Applicant his entitlements. The Applicant was not pleased. In his view, ADB terminated him unjustly. He issued a writ.

Amongst other things, he sought a declaration that “the termination of the Plaintiff’s employment by way of redundancy without agreeing with the Plaintiff on the amount of the redundancy pay and the terms and conditions thereof is unlawful and in breach of the contract of employment.”

This relief led the judge to conclude that the High Court did not have jurisdiction in the matter. In the view of the High Court, the appropriate forum for redundancy related disputes was the Labour Commission. The High Court, therefore, struck out the matter for want of jurisdiction.

The Applicant, in disagreeing with the ruling of the Court, asked the Supreme Court to set aside the order of the High Court.

The Applicant’s case was that the Labour Act did not vest exclusive jurisdiction in disputes concerning redundancies in the National Labour Commission and therefore the High Court erred when it held that the High Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter.

ADB’s lawyer, relying on the decided case of Bani v Maersk Ghana Limited[2], asserted that it was the Labour commission alone which had jurisdiction over matters related to unfair termination.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed with ADB. In the Supreme Court’s view, Article 140(1) of the 1992 Constitution provided that the High Court had jurisdiction in all criminal and civil matters; and that where the Constitution intended to limit the powers of the High Court, it did so expressly. An example of such an express limitation of the High Court’s powers is in the case of chieftaincy matters, which is found in the Constitution itself.

The Supreme Court also pointed out that its previous decision in Bani v Maerks Ghana Limited was bad law to the extent that it sought to say that only the Labour Commission had the authority to hear matters of unfair termination.

Benin JSC noted, “upon a close [sic] look at section 63 of the Labour Act, it will be noted that the grounds for unfair termination of employment are largely taken from the human rights provisions of the 1992 constitution, and it appears that the legislature was merely seeking to give effect to those provisions.”

He continued: “it would thus be untenable to say that when such provisions are transported into an Act of Parliament, the jurisdiction of the High Court is excluded. That could never have been the intention of the law maker…”

With this decision, a person who alleges that he has been unfairly terminated may either go to the Labour Commission or the High Court.

[1] Republic v High Court, Accra (Industrial and Labour Division Court 2); Ex Parte Peter Sangbah-Dery (Civil Motion No. JS/53/2017)

[2] (2011) 2 SCGLR 796

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Samuel Alesu-Dordzi is an Editor of the Ghana Law Hub.

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