Three judges of Zamibia’s highest court have at last brought some sense to a much-disputed section in the Industrial and Labour Relations Act. It reads, ‘The court shall dispose of the matter within a period of one year from the day on which the complaint or application is presented’, and it was introduced via an amendment to the legislation about 15 years ago. But what should happen where a matter drags on beyond the year stipulated in the law?
The problem with which Zambia’s lower courts – the high court and the appeal court – have been wrestling, is what should be done where a case involving a labour relations issue takes longer than a year to be finalised? The law clearly states that matters dealt with by the industrial relations court must be finalised within a year of filing, but it says nothing about what will happen if the matter takes longer than this to be completed.
In this matter before the supreme court, there had been a dispute between a lawyer working for an international bank and the bank itself, leading to ‘a somewhat acrimonious separation between the parties.’
The lawyer lodged a complaint with the industrial relations court in July 2013. Judgment on the matter was given more than six years later, in favour of the lawyer.
The bank then appealed, and raised several preliminary issues – chief among them was to point out that the action was not disposed of within a year. On this basis alone, the bank urged that the judgment by the industrial relations court judge, Egispo Mwansa, be declared null and void. It further submitted that the appeal court was precluded by statute from sending the dispute back to the high court since the entire matter was now statute barred.
As far as the court of appeal was concerned, it had to follow its previous decision on this problem: in Guardall, a case where a judge of the industrial relations court had delivered a decision more than a year after the original complaint was lodged. On appeal, the judges had set aside the judgment, saying that the high court had no jurisdiction to hand down a decision more than a year after a matter was lodged.
In Guardall the appeal judges also held that failure to comply with the one-year provision of the Industrial and Labour Relations Act ‘stripped the dealing judge of jurisdiction to continue dealing with the same matter.’
The appeal judges went on to find that the only thing wrong in Guardall, was that the court hadn’t disposed of the matter within a year. Therefore, the dispute was still ‘live’, said the judges, and sent the matter back to the high court for a fresh hearing before a different judge, with the referral date being the date of its judgment.
But there has been another thinking about what should be done where the industrial relations court delays beyond a year: according to this view, nothing further could be done after a year; the court lost jurisdiction, and, whatever stage the matter had reached, it was effectively thrown out. It just ended, and that was tough luck for the litigants.
Which of these approaches was correct?
Counsel for the bank said that the amendment to the law was meant to deal with the problem of delays in the industrial and labour relations court, and urged the supreme court to honour that intention by following the letter of the law.
No one would dispute this was the intention. But counsel for the lawyer in the dispute pointed to the facts on the ground. In 2022 alone, 656 complaints were filed in the industrial and labour relations court (not to mention cases brought forward from previous years) and they all had to be dealt with by just five judges. It was ‘inevitable’ that they wouldn’t be finalised within a year, she argued. Thus it was fair to the parties, once a matter was found void, to remit it to high court to be dealt with by another judge or, in this case, to hold that the Mwansa judgment was valid.
What would the supreme court make of all this?
The appeal raised ‘somewhat curious and deeply troubling questions’, said the judges, adding that both approaches to the problem so far were ‘fairly uneasy propositions’.
The notion of ‘reviving lost jurisdiction’, was ‘rather unsettling’. Once a court was found to have no jurisdiction, it couldn’t be recreated or reestablished. And the appeal court’s position on the problem didn’t ‘sit entirely easy’ with existing binding or persuasive authority’, let alone logic.
If its jurisdiction lapses, a court could do nothing more, not even reallocate the matter.
The real issue
But, said the supreme court, the real issue was whether, in fact, jurisdiction was lost merely by the failure to conclude a matter within a year.
While the section did not say what should happened if the deadline was not met, ‘no exclusion or restriction of the court’s jurisdiction is to be readily inferred from this provision alone.’
Where a literal interpretation creates ‘an absurdity’, the golden rule was to modify the reading of words to avoid an offensive situation. Such an approach required judges to look beyond the ‘content of the statute’ and consider the original purpose for the law.
The amendment aimed at curbing delays in the industrial court. Lengthy delays had been ‘fairly endemic’ and the law was intended to promote the ‘speedy and efficient administration of justice so that it is not compromised either by administrative lapses or inertia on the part of the litigants.’
Thus, said the supreme court, it didn’t agree with the appeal court about high court jurisdiction being lost after a year. ‘The view we take is that the approach [in Guardall] defeats the very purpose for which the law was amended’: namely, to provide speedy justice at the industrial relations court.
In terms of a purposive interpretation of the section, however, the court would not lose jurisdiction after one year. Courts had, in many cases, ‘leaned in favour of tolerating some delays’ provided there was no other irregularity.
The court had to recognise that the administration of justice in Zambia was under ‘severe stress’. Delays defeated the ends of justice. And while time prescriptions were a ‘bane’ to judges, and a source of ‘relentless worry and pressure’, they were important to encourage completion of work.
However, it would be ‘fallacious and unfair’ to take an ‘unbending attitude’ and hold that if matters were delayed beyond a year, it would result in the termination of proceedings.
The approach of referring a matter to another judge, once it ran over a year, could create ‘endless one-year cycles which is plainly an absurd result’.
The judges thus held Guardall was wrongly decided; the high court judge who wrote the initial decision in the dispute between the bank and the lawyer did not lose jurisdiction after a year, and his judgment was thus ‘not a nullity’, as the appeal court had found.
In its final remarks, the court said that what emerged ‘vividly’ from the judgment was the need for legislation to be clear.
Given the problems with ongoing delays in the labour court, ‘our recommendation to the relevant arms of government is to consider amendments to the provision that has brought about such a significant amount of confusion in interpretation.’