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Record-breaking tribunals backlog pushes system to the limit

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Efforts to reduce a backlog of employment tribunals are unlikely to have substantial impact as more than 625,000 cases wait to be heard, an employment lawyer has warned.

Figures released today by HM Courts & Tribunals Service show the number of outstanding claims reached a record level of 625,371 in the third quarter of 2013 – up by more than 55,000 on the previous quarter.

The caseload of outstanding claims is now 10% higher than last year and almost 2.5 times higher than in 2008.

Law firm EMW’s employment principal Jon Taylor warned the system was so overstretched, recently-introduced reforms would be unable to reduce the backlog significantly. 

He suggested fees introduced in July 2013, meaning applicants have to pay up to £250 to submit their claim and up to a £950 hearing fee, might deter future cases but would not alleviate the current build-up.

Taylor also said changes coming into force in April that will see employees considering an employment tribunal claim having to first go through mandatory conciliation through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) were unlikely to improve the situation.

“It’s highly questionable whether this will achieve the desired result and reduce the number of cases that are actually filed,” Taylor said. “It’s likely that it could simply make a long drawn-out process seem to take even longer. 

“Ironically, now that there are significant fees involved aimed at acting as a deterrent to taking a case all the way through to a tribunal hearing, there’s actually far less reason for either side to back down and conciliate.

“Claimants who want to avoid these hefty fees are likely to want to try and push their employer into a settlement that benefits them, but knowing that, those businesses who are confident of their position will want to stand their ground and resist those attempts.

“This is going to transfer a huge additional burden onto ACAS. The question is, is ACAS really in a position to be able to deal with the huge wave of cases which will hit it come April?”

An ACAS spokeswoman responded to the comments by explaining the body was prepared for the high demand.

"We have recruited additional conciliators for April and we have also tested and structured our service in preparation for the potential extra demands,” she said. 

"Early conciliation is voluntary – both parties need to agree to take part or conciliation can't work. 

“We haven't seen any evidence of employers not wanting to take part in a similar service we deliver called Pre-Claim Conciliation since fees were introduced."

The number of tribunal cases has risen steadily over the past five years. In quarter three of 2008, HM Courts & Tribunals Service reported 251,900 outstanding cases.