Funding needed to cut tribunal burden

A large number of weak employment tribunal claims are being made and only a
better resourced tribunal system will tackle the problem

Last year, the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) handled over 3,000
employment tribunal claims for member companies.

Research based on these claims shows that in 2001 nearly one in four claims
were withdrawn by the applicant before reaching a tribunal hearing without the
applicant receiving anything in exchange.

The survey also showed that only 4 per cent of all claims submitted by
applicants and handled by the EEF were upheld at a tribunal hearing. These
figures suggest that a large number of weak claims are being made.

At the same time, the tribunal system itself seems to have been under
considerable pressure to provide a reasonable level of service with some
tribunal offices facing acute problems. For example, EEF West Midlands
experienced 34 last minute cancellations of cases last year for member
companies they were representing.

These last minute cancellations mainly involved the tribunals in Birmingham
and involved one case scheduled for three days and one case scheduled for four
days.

The research shows there is a pressing need to reduce the number of claims
and weed out weak cases as early as possible.

This will require a better-resourced employment tribunal system and, bearing
in mind in particular the new conciliation responsibilities in the Employ-ment
Bill, a well resourced individual conciliation service from Acas.

The findings are very timely. The Government’s proposals to change the
employment tribunal system are being considered by the House of Lords. The EEF
has also submitted its views to the Employment Tribunal System Taskforce,
chaired by Janet Gaymer, which is due to report on how tribunal services can be
made more efficient and cost effective for users.

Weeding out weak cases and improving the funding of Acas are basic building
blocks for any other reforms to be effective. It is also vital the reform
proposals are kept simple otherwise the only result may be more complexity that
will not assist anyone.

The existing tribunal forms should be amended so that the parties are
required to provide more details about the issue.

Currently, proceedings which involve complex issues and claims can be started
with the most limited amount of information provided.

New forms should be designed so that they will assist the unrepresented
applicant to provide adequate details.

Tribunals will, of course, need to be vigilant to make sure that
applications will not be processed until adequate details are provided.

Once tribunal proceedings have begun, the EEF believes it would be useful to
have a uniform procedure for handling cases. Presently, practices vary from
region to region.

Through consultation with the employment tribunal user groups, which exist
in all the tribunal regions, a new uniform best practice procedure should be
established. There are provisions in the Employment Bill that give the
presidents of employment tribunals power to produce binding practice
directions. This power should be exercised. These new practice directions
should also incorporate a more positive case management approach by the
tribunals themselves.

Dealing with tribunal hearings themselves, the chairman’s conduct of the
hearing is all-important.

The chairman must strike a balance between being too brusque and allowing
repetitious and irrelevant evidence to be produced so that hearings are not too
prolonged – it is a difficult but essential task. Even the conduct of the
hearing could be made better by a more uniform approach.

Only through improvements to the process and management of tribunals and
funding of Acas will the burden on the tribunal system be reduced.

By Peter Martin, director of employment policy at EEF

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