Liam Doran and employers “breaking the law”

This morning’s Morning Ireland carried a report that some private hospitals are planning to cut the pay of nurses employed by them in 2010. This is not a surprising development, coming immediately after the State has cut the pay of publicly-employed nurses.

Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses Organisation was on the show and was understandably dissatsified that this cut might happen without any consultation or discussion with unions or employees. However, the increasingly bellicose Doran went on to say that the employers, in doing so, would be acting “illegally” and would be “breaking the law”. Is this correct?

Not in my understanding of what the phrases “illegal” and “breaking the law” mean. Murdoch’s Dictionary of Irish Law defines “illegal” as follows:

illegal. Unlawful; contrary to law; in violation of a law or a rule which has the force of law.

The definition of law is, to summarise, the body of rules which are binding on persons but that definition does not encompass private contracts.

Varying an employee’s terms and conditions of employment is a matter of contract between employer and employee. This means, of course, that to vary a core aspect of that contract, such as pay, the agreement of the employee is necessary and unilateral pay cuts are not generally possible.

In reality, many private sector employees (including thousands of solicitors) have had their pay cut, yet we do not see any rash of litigation on the issue. Perhaps some have agreed to the cut as part of a renegotiation package; many others have accepted the necessity of cuts and have acquiesced to unilateral changes.

By imposing a unilateral pay cut, an employer may have breached their contract with the employee. That employee has a range of options available to them (outlined here by Aoife Sweeney of Mason Hayes+Curran). But unliaterally changing the contract does not constitute “breaking the law” or acting “illegally”.

5 thoughts on “Liam Doran and employers “breaking the law”

  1. I’m a bit baffled by this. Don’t you consider contract law to be part of the law?

  2. Of course, but if I breach a contract have I “broken the law” or done something “illegal”? Under Irish contract law, is there an offence of breaching contract?

    I expect most people listening to Morning Ireland today interpret the comments as meaning a breach of statutory law or even a crime.

  3. One of us is very confused. You are assuming that “illegal” / “breaking the law” means breaking the CRIMINAL law. But that’s not what your quote from Murdoch says, is it? Murdoch leaves it quite open whether it is the criminal or the civil law that is being broken.

  4. The confusion is most likely on my part; but my question is whether a breach of contract could ordinarily be characterised as “breaking the law”/”illegal”? Certainly I would always refer to such an incident as a breach of contract, not by reference to the more loaded terms. Mr. Dola would have been quite correct to say that a unilateral pay cut would be a breach of contract and that the INO would assist the nurses in enforcing their contracts.

  5. true. technically a breach of contract should not be equated with breaking the law; the party has merely broken the contract, whereas the innocent party has various remedies available to him. saying that something is illegal or someone has broken the law would be more appropriate to the criminal context.

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