New Zealand Law Society - The first all-women bench at the Employment Court

The first all-women bench at the Employment Court

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An historic sitting at the Employment Court took place this week with the first all-women bench on Tuesday, 13 October.

Chief Judge Christina Inglis, Judge Joanna Holden and Judge Kathryn Beck heard Gate Gourmet NZ Ltd v Sandhu & Ors at the Specialist Courts on Federal Street in Auckland.

This week’s sitting follows the appointment of the former Law Society President Kathryn Beck to the Employment Court in July this year. There are now three women judges in the Employment Court based out of Auckland.

Kathryn Beck
Judge Kathryn Beck

The case the judges heard was the challenge to an Employment Relations Authority determination regarding employees’ entitlement to pay for work otherwise unable to be fulfilled during Alert Level 4, imposed from 25 March 2020. This was one of the first times an employment dispute relating to the impacts of COVID-19 have reached the court.

“This week’s hearing was significant as it was the first time a full Court of the Employment Court had sat with all female Judges,” Chief Judge Christina Inglis said.

Christina Inglis was appointed as the Chief Judge on 10 July 2017, having been sworn in as an Employment Court Judge in 2011. She was formerly on the Advisory Board of the New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice and is now on the Board of the Access to Justice Advisory Group, a joint initiative of the Chief Justice and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Justice. Chief Judge Inglis is also a member of the newly established cross-court Inclusion Committee.

Kathryn Beck was President of the New Zealand Law Society from 2016 to 2019, and a partner at boutique employment law firm SBM Legal from 2005 up until her appointment as Judge. She acted for both employers and unions in practice with 30 years of practical legal experience, including being Convenor of the NZLS Employment Law Committee.

Joanna Holden was appointed an Employment Court Judge in 2017. Admitted to the Bar in 1985, Judge Holden traversed employment law, general civil litigation, commercial and public law litigation at Kensington Swan and Chapman Tripp. In 2004, she moved to Crown Law Immediately prior to her appointment to the bench she was a Team Manager in the Crown Legal Risk Group.

“The hearing was also the first COVID-19 related case which has made its way to the Court.” Chief Judge Inglis said.

“The Employment Court has put in place contingency plans to accommodate such litigation, to enable it be dealt with promptly given the broader public interest and potential impact.”

“A full Court hearing on another COVID-19 related case is set down for 10-11 December in Auckland.”

Where most Employment Court cases are heard as judge alone, Gate Gourmet NZ Ltd v Sandhu & Ors demonstrates the importance of the case to New Zealand’s employment landscape as workplaces deal with outcomes from the implications of Alert Level 4.

History of New Zealand’s Employment Court

The beginning of an authority to settle employment disputes dates back to 1894, when the Court of Arbitration was established. Back then a Supreme Court Judge, a Union representative and an employers’ representative made up the court. The Court received its own dedicated judge in 1937.

Under the Industrial Relations Act 1973, the Arbitration Court then became the Industrial Court between 1974 and 1978.

The Labour Relations Act 1987 established the Labour Court decentralizing the Court from Wellington to also include Auckland and Christchurch, allowing for judicial participants beyond New Zealand’s capital.

By 1991, the Employment Court was established, superseding all past incarnations, soon followed by the Employment Relations Authority under the Employment Relations Act 2000. The Authority was set up to resolve employment relationship problems where disputes arise before they reach the Court.

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