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The effect of res-judicata principle on labour disputes

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The effect of res-judicata principle on labour disputes


The issue of multiple proceedings and multiple claims has become common in labour dispute resolution system as disgruntled employees tend to move from one court to another with the hope that they would get favorable judgments. This happens mostly between NECs and Labour officers. Employees have a tendency of approaching labour officers where there is a respective NEC for the undertaking concerned. When the claimants get an unfavorable determination from the NEC, they tend to clandestinely file the same case before a labour officer with a hope that they would get a different, favorable judgment. Section 63 (3b) provides that, where a designated agent is authorized to redress any dispute or unfair labour practice in terms of subsection (3a), no labour officer shall have jurisdiction in the matter. It is therefore advisable that the defendant should be alert and raise a point in limine of res-judicata principle to bar unscrupulous claimants who attempt to smuggle finalized matters before the courts.

Res-judicata (RJ) is a Latin term which stands for “a matter already decided”, and refers to a case in which there is a final judgment that is no longer subject to appeal. It is a legal doctrine used to block re-litigation of the same matter between the same parties. RJ is often raised in courts as a preliminary point where fresh claim is attempted by a claimant. Once RJ is raised the matter can not be entertained either in the same court or in a different court. This legal principle is a way of bringing finality on a matter which is already determined. RJ also helps to avoid unnecessary waste of time and judicial resources. It prevents earlier judgments from contradicting with the subsequent judgments on the same matter. In the case of Gwaze versus -National Railways of Zimbabwe (387/2000) 2002 ZWSC 44 it was clarified that where res- judicata is proved the case can not succeed.

Once a matter is finalized or a judgment has been handed down in a court, subsequent courts confronted with an identical matter will have to apply the principle of res-judicata to safeguard the effect of the initial judgment. A defendant in a lawsuit may use res-judicata as defense. The general rule is that a plaintiff who prosecuted an action against a defendant and obtained a valid final judgment is not able to initiate another action versus the same defendant. Section 124 of the Labour Act (Chapter 28.01) is clear and relevant to this matter. It provides that, where any proceedings in respect any matter have been instituted, completed or determined in terms of this act, no person who is aware thereof shall institute or cause to be instituted, or shall continue any other proceedings, in respect of the same or related matter, without first advising the authority, court or tribunal which is responsible for or concerned with the second mentioned proceedings of the fact of the earlier proceedings.

Factors to be considered for res-judicata to be binding

For res-judicata to pass the defendant must prove that the matter has been dealt with before and a final judgement has been handed down on the same matter. The following factors must be considered before making a determination on the preliminary issue of res-judicata.

(a) The claim must be based on the same facts that were at issue in the first action.

The subject matter of the subsequent suit should be identical or related to the former suit initially determined in a court of law. The defendant must produce evidence that clearly indicates that the matter brought before the court presents the same facts as presented in the previous matter which was determined.

(b) The identity of the parties to the action must be observed

The parties cited in the matter must be identical to those cited in the previous case. Where the other party is a company, the current name and address should be the same as those cited on the matter heard earlier.  In the case of citation of more than one complainant, involvement of any one of the initially involved parties will be seen as an attempt to seek attention on a matter which was already determined.

(c)The dispute must seek the same remedy

Some litigants may choose to file the same matter at a different court seeking the same remedy as initially sought from the previous court. For example, a complainant may file a dispute of underpayment of salary and the remedy will be payment of the difference. However, where the same parties are cited but seeking a different remedy the res-judicata principal may not apply. For example, where a matter is brought before the court for the purpose of registration of an order, it shall be treated as a different case.    

(d) Identity of the designation of the parties involved should be the same.

Citation of parties’ designation in the former matter must as well be the same in the latter suit for res-judicata to succeed. For example, where a labour officer was cited as a respondent in the previous matter, citation of the Attorney General later in the same matter may make the case different from the initial matter. Under such circumstances the matter will be different since citation of designation has changed.

(e) The case must be finally decided between the parties.

The matter must be finally decided for res-judicata to pass. The matter may be brought to court but the court may order for a fresh hearing on the matter (hearing denovo) in a lower court. Such a case will not be affected by res-judicata when parties appear before the lower court because the matter is not yet finalized. In other circumstances a matter may face a challenge of jurisdiction and it can be heard again in the correct court. Where a matter is finalized, a final judgment is handed down on the matter and res-judicata can not pass.

Exceptions of res-judicata

While it is critical to guard against res-judicata, it is critical to note that it does not apply to exceptional circumstances which are discussed below.

Appeals to the superior court

Where an appeal is filed at a superior court to challenge a judgment rather than attempting to file a new case, res-judicata does not apply. An appeal is usually filed by a disgruntled part who wants the judgment to be overturned in his or her favour. In most cases dismissed employees would appeal against their dismissal to the labour court if dismissed in terms of a code of conduct. Arbitration awards may be appealed against at the Labour Court while the decisions of the Labour Court may also be challenged at the Supreme Court.

Collateral attacks

An attack made in proceedings other than direct appeal with a specific objective of reversing or nullification of the judgement or order.  Usually such indirect attacks are invoked to challenge the procedure which led to the verdict. In other circumstances the complainant may seek to rescind a default judgment arguing that the other part was not given a chance to be heard. In most cases where the other part felt that the decision made by the court was unprocedural, the party may file an application for review at a superior court. The application would challenge procedure not the verdict.  The applicant will file an application for review at the Labour Court and the court may order hearing denovo to correct the procedure.


In other circumstances the disgruntled part may challenge jurisdiction of the court or disciplinary authority’s in hearing the matter. For example, a ruling made by a labour officer may face jurisdiction challenge where there is a national employment council of the undertaking in which parties belong to.

It is therefore critical that adjudicators of labour disputes observe res-judicata principle to avoid unnecessary waste of time and resources on matters already determined.  It also promotes finality on matters and prevents earlier judgments from contradicting with the subsequent judgments on the same matter. https://masvingomirror.com

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and must not be taken as legal advice. Simbarashe Gobvu is an experienced La­bour Practitioner and an Independent Arbitrator who write in his own capac­ity. He can be contact­ed at [email protected]/ Phone 0773215904 or 0713008767

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