16 August 2021 by and Employment Law Alert

A tale of two courts: Jurisdiction in claims for damages arising from the alleged malicious prosecution of a disciplinary hearing by an employer

In Kutu v The Minister, Department of Justice and Correctional Services [2021] JDR 1452 (MN), the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court had to decide whether the High Court had the necessary jurisdiction to entertain an action or claim for damages brought by a reinstated employee against their employer by reason of the alleged malicious prosecution of a disciplinary hearing, which resulted in the employee’s dismissal.

The employee was subjected to a disciplinary hearing, and later dismissed. The employee then referred his dismissal dispute to arbitration in terms of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (LRA). In terms of the ensuing arbitration award, the employee’s dismissal was found to be unfair and, as relief, the employee was granted reinstatement with full retrospective effect, including back pay amounting to 24 months’ remuneration (this was equal to the period the employee was unemployed due to the unfair dismissal).

After his reinstatement, the employee instituted a claim for damages before the High Court, seeking R1 million in general damages and R500,000 in special damages.

Counsel for the employee argued that the damages claim was not based on the LRA but rather on the malicious prosecution of the disciplinary hearing by the employer.

The High Court considered the employee’s contentions in light of section 158 of the LRA and the powers conferred on the Labour Court to make awards of compensation and damages in the circumstances contemplated in that section. In dismissing the claim for damages, the High Court considered that the employee’s disciplinary hearing and subsequent dismissal was one of the “circumstances” contemplated in the LRA. Accordingly, and in light of the fact that this is not one of the disputes over which the High Court has concurrent jurisdiction with the Labour Court in terms of section 157 of the LRA, it found that it lacked the necessary jurisdiction to entertain the damages claim. The High Court also found, in any event, that the claim for damages lacked merit as it was not properly quantified in the papers before it. For these reasons, the damages claim was struck from the court’s roll.

The judgment raises an important question relating to which matters the High Court and the Labour Courts have concurrent jurisdiction over. With regard to the merits of the damages claim, the judgment reinforces the trite principle of practice and procedure requiring parties to plead all damages claims with sufficient particularity and to quantify the monetary claim being brought before High Court with specificity. This was also confronted by the Constitutional Court in Baloyi v Public Protector and Others [2021] 2 BCLR 101 (CC), where the Constitutional Court reiterated that the Labour Court and other specialist tribunals established under the LRA are uniquely qualified to handle labour-related disputes and that litigants must, therefore, exercise caution when approaching the High Court for labour-related disputes.

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