Is There A Right To Cross-Examination In Disciplinary Hearings?


The Code of Good Practice on Dismissal (Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act) provides the guidelines for employers to follow in disciplinary proceedings. This code does not specifically require "cross-examination" but does provide that the employee must be aware of the allegations against them, to understand them, and be given a chance to state their side of the story - or defence - in response to the allegations.This week Ivan Israelstam explains the meaning of "cross-examination" and provides advice on how employers should proceed.



Whether an accused employee at a disciplinary hearing has the right to cross examine evidence brought against them has recently become a controversial issue. Before examining this question further, it is necessary to look at what is meant by the concept of ‘cross examination’.

When a person is accused of something in a court of law, at a tribunal or other forum the accused person is entitled, before the verdict is decided, to understand the allegations against them and to put forward a defense in response to the charges. One aspect of the accused’s right to respond is the right to question the evidence led against them. The normal format for this is as follows:

The party bringing the allegations presents evidence in support of the charges. Once a witness has completed their evidence the accused person is entitled to challenge what the witness has said. This step of asking questions of an opposing witness and challenging the evidence brought is called ‘cross examination’.

This fundamental right to cross examine is, as a matter of course, given to all accused persons in our criminal and civil courts, at arbitration hearings at the CCMA and bargaining councils, and at the Labour Court and Labour Appeal Court. This right is so integral to the accused’s right of defense that very few limitations may be placed on it. That is, the presiding officer is not entitled to refuse the accused the right to cross examine. Nor are they normally entitled to cut short the cross examination. An exception might be made to this rule if the accused is repeating questions that have already been properly answered by the witness. The cross examiner is not allowed to badger or bully the witness by pressing the witness for the answer they want, or by attacking the witness unduly. The cross examiner is also not allowed to ask questions that are irrelevant to the case. Other than these common sense limitations, the accused’s rights to cross examine the witness freely is sacrosanct. The person who has called the witness is normally neither allowed to interrupt the cross examination, nor to assist the witness with the answers to the questions, or other challenges put by the cross examiner.

While the above rules are very well established in the courts and other tribunals it is still an open question as to whether these same rights of cross examination apply to accused employees at disciplinary hearings. In his article on “Conducting disciplinary hearings by correspondence” in Contemporary Labour Law (May 2007, page 105) Wayne Hutchinson addresses this issue. He states that the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal contained in Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) does not confer the right to cross examine witnesses in a disciplinary hearing. If advocate Hutchinson is inferring that this means the employee has no right to cross examine, then his view is controversial. The main reason for this is that for decades it has been a very common practice at disciplinary hearings to allow cross examination, and it could be argued that this right has become entrenched in common law.

Furthermore, it appears that presiding officers who do not allow cross examination, might be interpreting the Code of Good Practice: Dismissal too literally. Advocate Hutchinson is right that the Code does not expressively provide for cross examination. However, the Code does provide that the employee should be “allowed an opportunity to state a case in response to the allegations.” In my view the accused’s right to respond encapsulates the concomitant right to challenge the evidence brought against him/her.

Section 35 (3) (i) of the Bill of Rights contained in the Constitution of South Africa gives every accused person the right to “adduce and challenge evidence.” This means that every formally accused person has the constitutional right to bring his/her own evidence and to challenge any evidence brought against him/her. In my view, should an accused employee not be allowed to cross examine opposing witnesses, his/her opportunity to challenge the evidence would be seriously diluted and his/her right to defend his/her case would be severely compromised. Having presided over countless disciplinary hearings I have never come across an employer, who has not claimed the right to cross examine the accused employee. It would therefore be folly for the employer to deny the same right to the employee.

Coming to the employer’s right to cross examine we need to look at the limitations placed on this right. The employer is in control of disciplinary hearings because these are convened at the workplace owned and managed by the employer. The employer therefore normally claims, as an automatic right, the opportunity to question the accused employee or their witnesses. And I see no problem with this in principle. However, the key question is “Who specifically has the right to cross examine the accused?” normally it is the person bringing the charges on the employer’s behalf. This person is normally called the complainant, initiator, or charging officer. However, the employer could be in trouble where the chairperson, the official presiding over the hearing, conducts the cross examination. In the case of Botha vs Mac Steel Trading (Pty) Ltd (2007, 3 BALR 197), the employee was dismissed for turning a blind eye to theft by subordinates. During the disciplinary hearing the chairperson vigorously cross examined the accused employee. The arbitrator therefore found that the dismissal was procedurally unfair, and ordered the employer to pay the employee compensation.

BY lvan lsraelstam, Chief Executive of Labour Law Management Consulting. He may be contacted on (011) 888-7944 or 0828522973 or via e-mail address: [email protected].

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Office environment

South Africa’s Labour Relations Act of 1956 was replaced soon after the transition of government in the mid 1990s because it was considered to favour employers in the view of the new government and its trade union allies. By 1995 South Africa’s new constitution had entrenched labour law rights very strongly and the labour movement had become very strong.




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