Chair name change for employment tribunals is a judgement call

Changing the name of tribunal chairmen aims to create more diversity. But will it work?

From 1 December 2007, chairmen and chairwomen of employment tribunals may be referred to as ’employment judge’.

This is when an order bringing into force an obscure paragraph in schedule 8 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 comes into force. The change has received so little publicity, you could be forgiven for missing it entirely. But has it any significance?

Come forward

The idea is, in part, to encourage those who might otherwise have been reluctant to apply for the position of what has quaintly (even anti-quaintly) been termed ‘chairman’ or ‘chair’ of the employment tribunal, to put their names forward.

It is very much hoped these will include those from ethnic minorities, and women. Whether this will actually have the desired effect is open to doubt.

On a related issue, the government recently had to make a complete U-turn over its plans to allow judges to return to private practice after they stepped down from the bench.

The idea, again, was to help increase diversity, in the belief that women and those from racial minorities might be more willing to take the risk of applying and seeking appointment as a judge, secure in the knowledge that it was not a one-way process, and they could always return to the profession if things did not work out.

That this plan was going to help with diversity was always questionable and, as reported in the Times on 6 November, the idea was unceremoniously dropped.

So what of the name ‘judge’? It is a coveted title for sure, and its use does need to be restricted to avoid its currency becoming devalued.

But is the term really becoming ‘promiscuous’, as was suggested in debate during the Bill’s passage through Parliament? Hardly.

There is currently a real shortage of judges being appointed to the higher echelons of the judiciary – namely the High Court bench – where, for whatever reason, the position is failing to attract appropriate candidates.

Important issues

More junior positions, however, continue to attract considerable numbers of applicants, and those who are subsequently appointed carry out an important civic duty. And while the cases they hear may not involve the largest sums of money, they do concern issues of real importance to those appearing before them.

If the registrars in the county courts are now thought to be of sufficient status and quality to be called district judges, shouldn’t employment tribunal chairmen and chairwomen be entitled to a more respected, contemporary title?

Employment tribunals have come a very long way since their inauguration in the 1970s, when they were set up to dispense relatively informal justice in the industrial sector.

The role of the chair now bears no comparison with the original role, and the decreasing ability of non-specialists appearing before tribunals is legendary.

There is no doubt that contributed to the concern expressed at the time the Bill was passing through Parliament – that those from other tribunals who may be asked to sit in tribunals, have the requisite experience to do so.

Surely there is much to be said for marking this change with an alternative title for the chair that accurately reflects the size and importance of the current role.

If that serves to bring forward more applicants from racial minorities, and from women, and if it also provides those who are then appointed with a gateway to promotion through the ranks of the judiciary to the higher echelons, where they are so sorely lacking, then so much the better.

Richard Fox
Head of employment law,
Kingsley Napley

New title of ’employment judge’ created

On 1 December 2007, the <A href="”>Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (Commencement No. 1) Order 2007 brings into force provisions of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 amending the Employment Tribunals Act 1996, so as to create a new title of ’employment judge’.

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