According to the latest statistics from the Tribunal Service, the number of claims reaching the employment tribunal stage has risen by 15% in 2006-07. While the attitudes and behaviour of some employers is certainly a factor in this growth, the complex grievance and disciplinary process that employers and employees are subjected to is by far the bigger culprit.
Designed to simplify the process and reduce claims, the statutory procedures have contributed to a significant increase in claims in the past two years. Current speculation is that a response to the recent government consultation exercise surrounding these procedures won't be swift, and any changes in the law are unlikely to arise until 2009 at the earliest. In the meantime, it seems employers and an already over-burdened tribunal system will have to soldier on.
The other major factor contributing to the escalation in claims over the past 12 months is the rise in equal pay claims. These have more than doubled to 44,013, and now account for more than 20% of all claims reaching court. This dramatic uplift has been brought about by a concerted effort from contingency fee lawyers in gathering claims from public sector employees.
While this is currently a major public sector issue, private sector employers ignore it at their peril. If pay inequality is not addressed, it can result in time-consuming and costly court action. With the increased publicity and active trade union support, it is only a matter of time before the proactive approach of the contingency fee lawyers extends to all employers.
More sex pleas
But the equal pay gap is not the only problem area that is continuing to cause concern and invite claims from aggrieved staff.
Despite sex discrimination laws being introduced almost 30 years ago, surprisingly, claims in this area have almost doubled in the past year to 28,153 in 2006-07. With such established legislation in place, it is worrying that this is still such a fruitful area for claims. Those upheld will not only harm a business financially, but can also do irreversible damage to a business's reputation.
Continuing on the theme of discrimination, the Tribunal Service statistics also revealed the first flurry of age discrimination cases following the introduction of legislation in October 2006.
While there were only 972 cases reaching the tribunal stage, this is unlikely to reflect the significant number of cases that are yet to filter through the system. The contentious issues sparking claims in this area are retirement and redundancy and, with the current wobble in the City markets and uncertainty over the legality of the UK's retirement procedure, this trend is likely to continue.
Businesses are limited as to the extent to which they can stamp out discriminatory behaviour among staff. And arguably, age discrimination is perhaps the most difficult, as many of the stereotypes about older and younger people are grounded in truth.
However, this isn't an excuse for employers to bury their heads in the sand - quite the contrary. Those that proactively demonstrate their adherence to regulations - in any aspect of employment legislation - will find they have a much stronger case if they find themselves in the unenviable position of facing a tribunal.
Head of employment law,
Employment tribunal statistics