When a presiding officer chairs a disciplinary hearing he/she must hear all relevant evidence offered. That is, the chairperson does not normally have the right to ignore or to refuse to hear any evidence related to the case. However, there is one exception to this rule, that being that the evidence admitted must also be legally permissible. This means that, even if the evidence offered by one of the parties is clearly relevant, the chairperson of the disciplinary hearing should still reject it if the evidence concerned is inadmissible according to legal principles.
Two types of evidence that may be ruled inadmissible are opinion evidence and hearsay evidence. Hearsay evidence occurs, for example, where the person placing the evidence before the presiding officer is not the person who witnessed the incident. For instance, the complainant may call the bookkeeper as a witness who might testify that the accused employee had been seen by the accountant making false entries in the books of account. The bookkeeper’s evidence is hearsay because he/she did not see the false entries being made. His/her evidence that the accountant saw the alleged incident is hearsay, indirect or second hand. The evidence that the accused was seen making the false entries would only be admissible if the accountant testified to this fact at the hearing.
Another example of hearsay at a disciplinary hearing is where the complainant hands the presiding officer a written statement (with or without the writer’s signature affixed) but the writer is not brought as a witness.
The reasons that hearsay evidence is considered as suspect at best and impermissible at worst include that:
- It increases the possibility that the evidence has been intentionally fabricated because the originator is not there to confirm it
- It increases the likelihood that there may be errors in the hearsay evidence placed before the hearing and that the person presenting it might have misunderstood the originator. In this sense hearsay evidence is akin to a rumour as, the more people to whom the story is relayed, the more it can be inadvertently altered. This renders the evidence unreliable.
- The opposition party who may wish to dispute the evidence is not given the opportunity to cross examine the originator of the evidence.
There are certain exceptional circumstances where hearsay evidence might be accepted to a limited extent. However, where a presiding officer of a disciplinary hearing illegally admits hearsay evidence in dismissing an employee this is most likely to result in the CCMA or bargaining council arbitrator ruling the dismissal unfair.
In the case of CEPPWAWU obo Tshukudu vs Solid Doors (Pty) Ltd (2002, 11 BALR 1114) the employee was dismissed for allegedly making false accusations against his managing director. The alleged fact that the accusations against the MD were false was based on hearsay evidence. The arbitrator therefore found the dismissal to be unfair and ordered the employer to reinstate the employee with full retrospective effect.
In NUMSA obo Mnisi vs First National Battery (2007, 10 BALR 907) several employees were dismissed for allegedly stealing batteries. The presiding officer admitted into evidence a tape recording of an alleged statement by an employee implicating the employees charged with the theft. The arbitrator found that the admission of this evidence to be hearsay because the maker of the alleged statement did not testify. The arbitrator therefore ordered the employer to reinstate all the dismissed employees with retrospective effect.
When a presiding officer of a disciplinary hearing is faced with hearsay evidence he/she must consider:
- whether it should be admitted at all
- The reason that hearsay evidence is being brought instead of first hand evidence. It may be that it is impossible for the originator of the evidence to testify because he/she has subsequently died.
- Whether it should be admitted but be given less weight than it might otherwise be given.
- Admitting the hearsay evidence will result in legal prejudice to the opposing party. That is, will the admission of this evidence substantially disadvantage the case of the opposing party?
- The inherent value of the evidence outweighs the potential disadvantages of admitting hearsay evidence.
Having to make these crucial yet highly complex decisions requires a solid understanding of the laws of evidence. It also requires substantial skill in weighing up the pros and cons and making a decision that is fair and pragmatic for the employer but does not infringe the labour laws protecting the employee.
It is therefore crucial that all employers either thoroughly train their managers who act as presiding officers or hire reputable labour law experts to do so.