Lawyer or union?

There was a good buzz at IMPACT’s conference for health and social care professionals earlier this week, when over 400 members and non-members from ten professions came together to discuss the implications of the forthcoming statutory registration of their professions.
It was an unusual IMPACT event in many ways. Unlike the union’s biennial delegate conference a couple of weeks ago, many of the participants weren’t even IMPACT members for a start. 

But, as the union unveiled its new measures to protect members in ‘fitness to practice’ cases, virtually all the speakers had a strong message about the value of trade union membership.A full house at The Helix, DCU for the IMPACT health professionals conference

That was no surprise coming from union heads like Claire Treacy of the INMO, Karen Jennings of British union Unison, or our own Christina Carney. But I was also pleasantly surprised to hear a really strong endorsement of the role of trade unions coming from a barrister. In the past it’s been more common to hear solicitors and barristers opine that unions are irrelevant because a decent lawyer will take your case if you’re treated unfairly at work. 

In an excellent presentation that set out exactly what health professionals should expect after they become legally obliged to register from next year, barrister Rosemary Mallon urged practitioners to seek advice from a union if complaints were made against them – or even if they thought a complaint might be made by a manager, colleague, client or patient.

“The importance and value of immediately contacting your union cannot be overestimated. Your union will on a very basic human level provide you with support. On a practical level your union will also be able to guide you through the process and offer advice on the course of action you should take. Complex legal issues and/or procedural issues may well arise when a complaint is made,” she said. 

Rosemary went on to outline how IMPACT could help prevent complaints turning into unpleasant and expensive fitness for practice hearings. It was a refreshing message. Too often, legal practitioners are happier to set themselves up as an alternative to trade unions, who excel both in representing members in formal hearings and tribunals, and in sorting out problems before they even get there.
Many’s the time I’ve seen my colleagues – IMPACT officials who are experts in employment law and industrial relations procedures – at Labour Court hearings outsmarting the expensive senior counsel representing employers.

That’s not to say there’s no role for legal eagles in this business. Part of the new IMPACT package for its health professionals – who could find themselves out of work if they lose a fitness to practice case – is to provide and pay for legal representation when necessary.

There need not be a conflict between unions and the legal profession. Many workplace rights are rooted in contract law and other legislation and we hire counsel when required. But a skilled union official can sort out most workplace problems quickly and effectively before they develop into expensive court cases. Union membership can save you a lot, both in terms of money and anxiety.

Bernard Harbor is IMPACT’s head of communications