Among a series of proposals aimed at improving the operation of employment tribunals and ensuring fairer outcomes to grievance claims, the Law Commission has recommended an extension to the time limit for people to bring claims to employment tribunals from the current three months to six months.
It has also proposed that tribunals should have the power to extend time limits in all cases when they consider it “just and equitable” to do so. At present, time limits can only be extended in cases where it is “not reasonably practicable” to meet the limitation date.
Another major proposal put forward by the commission is for an increase in the powers of tribunals so they can decide claims of breach of contract brought by employees and workers while they are still employed. Currently, the employee has to have left the employer before bringing a claim.
Other proposals include plans to ensure judges with specialist knowledge hear employment-related claims with the introduction of an “employment and equalities list” and allowing tribunals to hear complaints by employees who say they are working hours in excess of the maximum working time limits.
The review by the Law Commission, an independent body set up to reform the law, looked at the jurisdiction of employment tribunals and the areas where they share jurisdiction with the civil courts to hear employment and discrimination claims. The body said: “It found a range of issues including unsatisfactory gaps in employment tribunals’ powers which can mean that claimants have to bring two sets of proceedings because the tribunal cannot deal with all their claims.”
Many employment lawyers see the mooted changes as beneficial in the era of Covid-19 because they could lead to more agreements, settlements and preservation of employee-employer relationships.
Caroline Field, partner at Fox & Partners, said a time limit extension to six months would make it easier for people to bring complex claims, such as those involving whistleblowing and discrimination.
“There are significant hurdles for claimants bringing such claims, including accessing relevant documentation and collation of other evidence. The current time limits may be a barrier to access justice for legitimate claims,” she said.
“These proposals could make a big difference to litigants, the courts and tribunals, and the government needs to pick up on them. They should not be left to gather dust” – Caroline Field, Fox & Partners
Field added that the current three-month timescale heaped pressure on both employees and employers who were running complex investigations, such as into discrimination and harassment allegations. “Often, those processes must be completed before there is any prospect of meaningful discussions around settlement, meaning claimants have to bring a claim to protect their position.”
The timescales and pressures involved, said Field, meant that reaching a sensible financial settlement or a resolution that could preserve the employment relationship became more difficult. “These tight timescales are a particularly vexed issue where complex internal processes are being delayed by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Field said she strongly supported the implementation of the proposals, which “could make a big difference to litigants, the courts and tribunals, and the government needs to pick up on them. They should not be left to gather dust.”
Jeremy Coy, associate in the employment team at Russell-Cooke, described the commission’s proposals for improving enforcement of Working Time Regulations as “optimistic“ because “tribunals already have jurisdiction to hear claims that often arise from employees’ dissatisfaction with workload in the form of constructive dismissal and discrimination cases”.