More employment tribunals to go virtual in raft of changes

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The government is relaxing the rules around employment tribunals to allow more hearings to be held online in an effort to deal with the rise in cases following the abolition of tribunal fees and to help manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Business minister Paul Scully announced a number of changes to boost hearing capacity in Parliament today as part of an £80 million investment for HM Courts and Tribunal Service which will involve the recruitment of 1,600 additional staff.

From 8 October 2020 there will more flexibility for hearings to be held remotely in an effort to reduce caseloads and speed-up justice for workers and employers.

In July 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that employment tribunal fees, introduced in 2013, were unlawful under both UK and EU law because they prevent access to justice, leading to a 64% increase in single claims.

Last week, the Ministry of Justice published data showing that 39,093 single claims were outstanding in the employment tribunal, and 5,915 multiple claims. The backlog – 26% higher than at the beginning of March – has increased every week since the lockdown began.

With furlough coming to an end on 31 October, the number of redundancies is expected to soar and, with it, the number of workers who feel they have been treated unfairly.

Scully said: “The employment tribunal system has held up very well in the face of an increased caseload and the impacts of Covid-19 – but these changes will boost its capacity further.

“These reforms will provide further flexibility to the system to ensure workers and businesses receive quick and fair resolutions to disputes, both at this critical time and in the future too.”

One of the changes being made will allow the judiciary the option to deploy non-employment judges to employment tribunals, as long as certain criteria on suitability are met.

From 1 December 2020, early conciliation will last six weeks as standard, rather than the current set-up which spans one calendar month with a possible fortnight’s extension. Other amendments to the rules include:

  • allowing legal officers to carry out administrative tasks currently performed by employment judges – for example accepting or rejecting claim form or extending time
  • refining the Acas early conciliation process and employment tribunal rules to allow greater flexibility in handling minor errors
  • changing the rules to allow multiple claimants and respondents to use the same forms where reasonable, to avoid multiple certificates and time limits in what is essentially the same dispute.

At last, multiple respondents can share one ET3 form in substantially similar cases. This avoids multiple ET3s saying exactly the same thing, which serves no purpose other than bulking out tribunal bundles” – Daniel Barnett, barrister

An Acas spokesperson said: “We welcome these changes to early conciliation. One key change includes extending the time period of early conciliation from one month to six weeks.

“At the moment, Acas has a statutory duty to offer early conciliation for one calendar month and this can only be extended by two weeks if all the sides involved in the dispute agree with their conciliator to this extra time to help resolve the dispute. The change from one month to six weeks will make this process smoother and remove any hurdles to settling cases within six weeks.”

Courts minister Chris Philp said: “These changes will provide speedier resolutions for businesses and employees alike, and are the latest step in our plan, backed by £80 million of funding and an additional 1,600 staff, to reduce delays and deliver justice.

“We are pursuing every available option including increasing the use of technology, rolling out further safety measures to ensure our courts recover from the effects of the pandemic as quickly as possible.”

Daniel Barnett, barrister at Outer Temple Chambers, told Personnel Today: “Legal officers will speed up the process. They won’t necessarily be lawyers, but they’ll be able to make simple decisions like extending time for case management orders or make certain orders by consent. This will free up judges’ time for hearing actual cases.”

He added: “At last, multiple respondents can share one ET3 form in substantially similar cases. This avoids multiple ET3s saying exactly the same thing, which serves no purpose other than bulking out tribunal bundles.”

The government’s announcement is in addition to the £142 million investment across the courts system announced in July to accelerate improvements in technology and modernise courtrooms.

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