Employment tribunal shake-up needed to improve quality and efficiency

A radical overhaul of employment tribunal procedures is required as HR professionals contend with a rising tide of claims from disgruntled employees.

The warning comes from the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA), which conducted research among its 5,500 members to gain a grass-roots view of what is happening.

There has been a massive hike in the number of claims accepted by employment tribunals in the past year. The 56% rise reported by the Tribunals Service for 2009-10 is the highest-ever level, involving 236,100 claims, up from 151,000 the previous year.

The soaring claims rate provides the backdrop to mounting concern among employment lawyers throughout the UK about the consistency of the approach, efficiency and quality of tribunal services. Problems cited include: short notice of postponement of substantive hearings; delays in listing case management discussions and pre-hearing reviews; and cases going part-heard because of lack of available time.

More than half (56%) of respondents had experienced a decline in service received from tribunals. Eight in 10 believed the approach taken by tribunals around the country was not consistent; the same number believe a lack of resources lay behind the problem.

Three-quarters favoured the creation of specialist courts to deal with equal pay claims – which has led to the service creaking under pressure as it struggles to deal with the huge number of claims.

Other changes suggested by ELA members include:

  • judges sitting alone on straightforward cases, such as unfair dismissals, to ease overall pressure on the system;
  • having an agreed timetable and process for exchange of witness statements; and
  • more use of email communication from tribunals to cut down on phone calls and post.

ELA chair Joanne Owers said: “The dramatic escalation in claims has put employment tribunals and the Tribunals Service under considerable pressure. It is understandable that cracks are appearing in the system.

“In addition to highlighting the problem areas commonly encountered by users, ELA members have indicated very strong support for practical changes and improvements, which they believe will complement the work being carried out to improve the service and deliver significant benefit to the employees and employers who use it.”

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