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Is employment tribunal law a ‘barrier to justice’?

A report by the Tribunals Service has revealed that the number of tribunal claims rose by 56% in 2010 alone, bringing the total that year to 236,000 cases. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) suggests that “vexatious or doomed claims should be sifted out of the system long before reaching court”, so that genuine complaints are given the time and the attention they deserve. Currently, the CBI argues, the system is nothing but a “barrier to justice” for both employers and employees.

Part of the problem seems to be an over-enthusiasm on many employees’ parts to launch cases against their employers. The Government’s response was to propose legislation in which a fee must be paid in order to start a claim, and to double the length of time in which someone must be employed before they can sue for unfair dismissal. The CBI agrees with this in theory, but has suggested that the payable fee should be both proportionate to the type of claim being made and, in the event the claim is successful, refundable. The Chief Policy Director of the CBI, Katja Hall, said: “We are saddled with a tribunal system that is expensive, stressful and time-consuming for all parties. Surely it's in everyone's interests for cases with merit to be heard quickly and settled, while weak claims are swiftly identified and weeded out.”

The Nay-Sayers

However, the proposed legislations also have their detractors. The General Secretary of the Trades Union Council (TUC), Brendan Barber, believes that they will only help to increase the stronghold that unscrupulous employers already have over their workers. He agrees that, in principle, a system that is faster and more efficient can only be of benefit, but warns that: “the CBI conveniently forgets that bad employers make life hard for staff, not the employment tribunals system.”

Part of the legislation is to fine those who lose at a tribunal claims court. This fee would be half of the compensation awarded (up to £5,000) in addition to paying compensation. Businesses are arguing that organisations would be more likely to settle claims out of court, rather than risk incurring the extra costs. According to a report by law firm Eversure, six out of ten firms would pursue this route, even if the claims were without foundation. This, they argue, would give unscrupulous employees the upper hand.

Unrealistic expectations

Ultimately, these proposals are set to bring about a more cost-effective system. A driving factor in the current set-up is that many employees have unrealistic expectations as to the figures they can achieve through compensation. There are many high-profile sex discrimination claims that are reported to have paid out hundreds of thousands of pounds in remuneration. In reality, the average pay out that a worker can expect from a case is around £4,000.

The CBI is calling for a more transparent approach where claimants are given accurate information as to what they can expect from a successful claim.

It is undeniable that the current system is clogged up with spurious claims that are effectively acting as a ‘barrier to justice’ for others. However, research suggests that the proposals would be open to abuse from both sides of the fence, should they be implemented.

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