What rights do employees accused of bullying have?
I attended a meeting yesterday for “users” of the Employment Tribunal at East London – mostly lawyers, but also others who bring or defend cases before the Tribunal on a reasonably regular basis. I was fully expecting to be told Tribunal applications had “fallen off a cliff” here, as in every other region in the country.
But pinch me – we were told, that is in fact very far from the case. They reported 10,049 live cases in 2012/13 and 7,467 in 2013/14. In the context of the statistics recently released by BIS showing a 79% decrease in the number of cases being issued in the Tribunals (following the introduction of Tribunal fees), a decrease of only 25% of live cases is really quite remarkable.
We must await confirmation of these numbers when the official minutes are published. But overall, in London East, there was something like a 20% reduction in case load. Regional Employment Judge Carol Taylor acknowledged this was not the picture in other regions. Of course Early Conciliation may now decrease figures further, particularly after it becomes compulsory from 6 May, but that would be the case for other regions as well. The reasons why East London may be bucking the national trend may also be intriguing. Might it be down to sheer geography, for example, with Tribunal fees being less of an issue for workers in Banking and Financial Services in the City, than for those on lesser remuneration in other parts of the country. Or are other factors at play here such as the propensity to access insurance products, or the presence of particular advisers and so on. My guess (not based on any evidence) is that pay has a lot to do with it.
There are knock on effects however. Firstly, although you would think such a decline in numbers would ease the pressure on the Tribunal’s ability to respond promptly to correspondence, they have also had to absorb a significant decrease in their staff numbers. The number of caseworkers has dropped from 17 to 8 for example. Nonetheless correspondence is being turned around far quicker than before. So much so, that they were proud to confirm that from the time of receipt of instructions from a Judge, most communications were going out to parties within two days. Only last year in some cases this was at times taking as much as nine weeks to get out!
Interestingly, it appeared the nature of the work they were doing in London East had changed. There was now a far greater concentration on the more complicated cases. That meant, for example, increased, rather than decreased, pressure on the need to have wing members available. Sometimes that resulted in delay, because they had to be drafted in from other regions, an hour or two away.
Elsewhere, I understand the position is very different, with wing members now being heavily under employed. In that respect it was confirmed that the vast majority of unfair dismissal cases were now being heard by an Employment Judge alone. Only cases involving whistleblowing, and in those rare circumstances when child abuse might be an issue, were wing members being asked to sit as part of a full Tribunal.
The topic of hearing fees were unsurprisingly, a bit of an issue. Parties on the cusp of settlement were looking to avoid having to pay. However, there would be no consent to delay in these circumstances. Unless the parties made a joint application for an adjournment, the fee would be payable, and if not received, there would be zero tolerance: the case would simply be struck out.
Many have suspected that because of fees, small claims are simply now uneconomic. This was plainly acknowledged at the meeting. Unfortunately few statistics are currently available as to how many small wages claims are being transferred to the County Court (where there is a more benign fees regime). But opinions were expressed that such claimants would much prefer the Employment Tribunal environment, and as a result, were probably choosing not to bring their claims at all. This would have been a particular problem at the time of the Olympics when many employees were complaining they were not being paid. Would they have pursued a claim to the Tribunal if asked to come up with a fee in order to do so (or alternatively go through the remission application process)?
At the end of the meeting someone asked about security arrangements at London East. Why are they so much tighter than elsewhere around the country? We were told it was because at Anchorage House, they share the building with the Social Security and Asylum Tribunals, and as a result have to go through these procedures. In fact, we were told various weapons had been discovered such as knives. Apparently there was even someone coming through with a pigeon secreted into their ruck sack! I thought it might instead have been a parrot, who could recant the details of what took place at a hearing, without flouting the Contempt of Court Rules. If the Employment Tribunals continue to lose business at the current rate, “pretty folly” would be an understandable parroted refrain.
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