In our post on 6 April, we explained that one of the most notable changes brought in by new employment legislation was the increase of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal from one year to two years. However, at the same time a number of smaller changes were introduced which are designed to improve the efficiency of Employment Tribunals.
Judges sitting alone: Until this year, Employment Tribunals have normally comprised an employment judge and two lay members. Certain proceedings, including redundancy pay claims and breach of contract, can be heard by a judge sitting alone, but from 6 April 2012 employment judges will also hear unfair dismissal cases alone.
Tom Street, of doihaveacase.co.uk, says : “One of the key upsides to this change is that the cost of hearings should be lower, with no need to pay the fees and expenses associated with lay panel members. It should be a more convenient, quicker and cheaper process.”
Also, requiring the parties to take just one experienced employment judge through facts of a less complex case should significantly reduce the time needed for the hearing, and with these cases judges don’t necessarily need the assistance of lay members.
Tom goes on to add, “However, more complex employment cases, for example those involving whistleblowing, are better suited to a complete panel, where lay panel members are arguably of most value in getting useful perspectives on complex issues.”
Witness statements taken as read : Traditionally witnesses have been asked to read the content of their witness statement out loud, so that evidence can be presented orally. For claims submitted on or after 6 April 2012, these statements will be “taken as read”.
“Civil courts do not require witness statements to be read out”, says Tom Street, “So there is no reason why Employment Tribunals should be any different.
“This should speed things up in a tribunal, as hearing the witness statements can take days, and is often a waste of time as by the time they get to tribunal stage, it should be pretty clear what the other side’s position is. On the other hand, sometimes it can be useful for the tribunal to hear the evidence presented orally, as it helps them to assess the credibility of the witness.”
Deposit Orders: Not something used that frequently by employment judges (not often enough, some say), but still a useful mechanism for putting off “vexatious claims”. Deposit orders require a party (either the claimant or the respondent) to pay a sum to the courts if they wish to pursue the claim. The judge can require a deposit if the claim has “little reasonable prospect of success”. Until now the maximum deposit a judge could order was £500, but from 6 April 2012 this doubles to a maximum of £1000.
Tom Street says “It is rare that we have an employment judge who will insist upon a deposit order. We wouldn’t normally proceed to tribunal with a claim if we ourselves thought that the claim was vexatious; we aren’t in the business of wasting anyone’s time. However, we did recently have a deposit order made against one of our clients where he was claiming unfair dismissal against his former employer, one of the world’s Top 100 website companies. Unfortunately the claimant could not afford the £500 and so decided not to proceed, although we felt he had a strong case.”
Costs Orders : The maximum sum of a cost order which tribunals can award doubles from £10,000 to £20,000 after 6 April 2012. It is widely acknowledged in the industry that costs orders are not made often enough (possibly because they are difficult to recover) and the Government hopes that any increase will put off serial litigants from pursuing their claim.
Tom Street says “Hopefully these reforms will encourage parties pursuing weak claims to think carefully before getting in too deep, as if the decision goes against them there could be costs involved. That said, if a claimant fees genuinely aggrieved and determined to “have their day in court”, there isn’t any reform which would put them off.”