Tribunal system slammed for being overly complex

Legal
technicalities and layers of bureaucracy have been highlighted as factors hindering
‘common sense’ rulings in employment tribunals by a former tribunal chair. Ross
Wigham reports

A
former employment tribunal chair has criticised the current system for being
too complex, overly legalistic and too time consuming for employers and disgruntled
workers.

Harold
Tavroges – who chaired tribunals in England for more than 20 years – claims
that officials are now hampered by layers of bureaucracy and a multitude of
legal technicalities which are removing the scope for ‘common sense’ rulings.

He
said employment tribunals were now poorly regarded by employers and staff
because of the increasing legalistic approach and the growing length of cases.

“The
tribunal system started off well and worked effectively. They existed so
justice could be done fairly and without a great deal of fuss. It was a very
effective system of resolving disputes between employers and employees,”
Tavroges said.

“However,
I think there’s a general feeling that the common sense approach has gone out
of tribunals. The system is overly bureaucratic with too many technical points.
I actually think cases will start rising again rather than going down,” he
explained.

Tavroges
also complained about the increasing length of time it takes for cases to be
resolved, but said the growing use of legal representation and advice meant
that tribunals were being hamstrung.

“The
challenge is to restore tribunals to what they used to be – I personally don’t
think any case should take more than a day to hear,” he said. “They are now
bound up with all this red tape, and it’s preventing them from doing the job
correctly.”

Tavroges
told the North East Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) AGM
that HR professionals were forced to bear the brunt of growing litigation in
the workplace, as well as the failings of the current system.

“I
feel very sorry for HR staff, because there’s so much they have to be aware of
now. They have enough on their plate without having to deal with more
employment tribunals,” he added.

He
advised frustrated practitioners to try and join user committees to have an
impact on the way the system is being operated.

Mike
Emmott, head of employee relations at the CIPD, agreed that employers and staff
now had a greater reliance on legal representation because of the nature of
tribunals.

“I
think the worrying thing is that it may become part of the regular court
system. There’s a heavy burden on employers because of this compensation
culture, but individuals suffer as well if they end up losing their job and
only get a small pay out,” he said.

“I
think we need a much more solid front end to the process. It used to be
conciliation, but it’s hard to get people to accept negotiated settlements. The
changes to grievance procedures in October could even add to the legal burden.”

Emmott
also expressed concern about the growing length of tribunals, and said
mediation could be the best way of resolving employment disputes.

“Mediation
is the jewel in the crown, really – it looks like an attractive way to fill the
non-legal space and help reach agreements.”

The
Government hopes new disciplinary and grievance regulations taking force in
October will help improve the whole system of dealing with employment disputes,
and ultimately reduce the number of tribunals.

Last
year, numbers actually fell by 12 per cent to 98,617, but the Employment
Tribunals Service warned the number of single applications registered only fell
by 3 per cent, and that this figure is more representative of its actual
workload.

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