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Employment tribunals at breaking point

Employment tribunals are functioning at a snail’s pace, according to a survey from the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA), threatening access to justice for both workers and employers.

The ELA has called on the Ministry of Justice to urgently invest in more staff and judges to ensure tribunals run smoothly and quickly after overuse and loss of staff due to the pandemic.

Years of under-resourcing have also hindered the tribunal’s ability to serve their purpose and quickly solve any issues between employers and employees.

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According to the ELA survey, more than 40% of lawyers are waiting more than a year for their clients’ cases to come to tribunal.

Cases being brought to tribunal are also taking significantly longer to be resolved, and it is now common for final hearings to be delayed.

Of the cases reported with significantly delayed final hearings, over 80% are in respect of events that happened at least six months ago and over 90% of lawyers have final hearings being listed at least six months into the future.

One respondent described the system as scandalously under-resourced and said: “They just seem to be drowning.”

Another said: “It is virtually impossible to get through to the tribunals by telephone which is sometimes necessary for urgent matters.”

Caspar Glyn QC, chair of the ELA Legislation and Policy Committee, said in this situation it would seem the pandemic has been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

He said: “An already stretched system has been pushed to absolute breaking point. The evidence shows that the failure by the Ministry of Justice to invest resources in, recruit and train staff to the employment tribunals threatens the effectiveness of timely employment justice in Great Britain.

“We know how hard the court staff and judges are working, and we also recognise that the new electronic case management system has helped to an extent.

“However, put simply, there are too few staff who have too much to do and too little time to deal with tribunal users and their applications.”

Glyn added there are too few judges, so hearings are being held more than a year after a claim has been issued.

"The Ministry of Justice must act now to fund the tribunals so employers and workers can resolve their disputes in a timely way,” he said.

However, a positive note from the past year has been the speed with which lawyers and the tribunals adapted to remote hearings.

Of those surveyed, almost all see remote hearings as at least somewhat effective - more than half perceive them as very effective and over 80% are more likely to consider them fair compared to March 2020.

The employment lawyers who responded to the survey said they thought remote hearings provided improved access to justice.

“Virtual hearings are a positive development as they increase the number of cases that can be heard in each tribunal, without the constraints of rooms etc. being available, and have prevented a huge slowdown of cases being heard in the Tribunals during the pandemic,” one respondent said.

The ELA surveyed over 700 employment lawyers between April and May 2021.