Labour Court wrongly threw out claim from prison officer racially abused by prisoners

Labour Court wrongly threw out claim from prison officer racially abused by prisoners

Sinéad Gibney

The Labour Court wrongly dismissed a claim made against the Irish Prison Service by a black prison officer who was racially abused by prisoners, the High Court has ruled.

Ms Justice Miriam O’Regan last week ruled that the Labour Court had reached “effectively a bald conclusion without an expression of why the conclusion was reached or without engaging in the conflicting evidence by the parties within the prism of the applicable law”.

Peter Onyemekeihia, an Irish citizen originally from Nigeria, has complained of constant and abhorrent racial abuse by prisoners, as well as a number of assaults, during a period of over six years working in Mountjoy Prison.

He felt that he had no option but to take a complaint under the Employment Equality Acts to the Workplace Relations Commission, and subsequently the Labour Court, as no adequate steps were taken by his employer to address the ongoing abuse over a long period of time.

The crucial question in the case was whether the existence of the prison rules and a process for disciplining prisoners allowed the Irish Prison Service to avail of the defence under section 14A of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 as amended that it had taken “reasonably practicable” steps to prevent the harassment.

Ms Justice O’Regan set aside the Labour Court ruling on the basis that it “did not fulfil its obligation to provide reasons in accordance with the jurisprudence” and had failed to address a separate aspect of Mr Onyemekeihia’s claim concerning indirect discrimination.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission supported Mr Onyemekeihia in bringing his complaint and appealing on a point of law to the High Court.

Welcoming the High Court ruling, chief commissioner Sinéad Gibney stated: “Mr Onyemekeihia initiated his proceedings against the Irish Prison Service in 2015 following repeated incidents of racial abuse by prisoners between 2009 and 2015.

“We welcome the decision of the High Court. The case will be listed for re-hearing before the Labour Court.

“I urge employers to take all possible actions to protect employees from racial discrimination and harassment as required under the Employment Equality Acts.”

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