Employment tribunals coping despite backlog and Covid-19

Out-Law News | 17 Nov 2020 | 1:44 pm |

Andrew Kane tells HRNews that delays in listing cases for hearings are not as bad as some reports make out    
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  • Transcript

    Employment tribunals have ‘almost ground to a halt’ and you could be waiting over a year for your case to be heard. That is the headline in Personnel Today which reports on the latest research into this which shows a number of tribunals are struggling to cope with a growing backlog of claims which has got steadily worse during the pandemic. We will come onto our own experience in a moment but first a word on the research itself which is by a law firm which is based in East London which probably explains why the results are focused only on tribunals in the south of England, so it's a rather narrow view of what is going on overall, we think. So, for that part of the UK at least, they report that Southampton tribunal was listing court hearings for two-week complex discrimination cases in August 2021, and Bristol for April 2021 whilst London South wasn’t listing hearings until December 2021. They also found that a two-day ordinary unfair dismissal claim would not be heard by London South until March 2021 (April, in Bristol; May in Southampton; and January in Exeter). They also say that high workloads and a shortage of staff at the London Central employment tribunal had also resulted in telephone hold times now stretching for up to five hours for those calling to discuss the scheduling of hearings.Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, back in September the government published the official figures for employment tribunal claims across Scotland, England and Wales, something they do every quarter. They show that the number of outstanding cases is greater than during the financial crisis of a decade agowhich, the BBC reports, is due in no small part due to Covid-19 which has created a perfect storm – pressure on businesses, corners being cut and then job losses which trigger claims by employees for unfair dismissal. So it's a picture of tribunals under strain everywhere, but especially in the south east of England, going by that article. So what is our experience? We have offices across the UK, handling cases in both jurisdictions, so we have a good view of what is going on across the piece. The person responsible for managing that caseload is Andrew Kaneso I phoned Andrew to get his view on the state of how tribunals are coping:

    Andrew Kane: “Andrew Kane: “So the Personnel Today article headline announces employment tribunals have ‘almost grown to a halt’ and I think the first thing that I would say, really, is that that is not true in my experience. You know, to say that they have ground to a halt is unfair, I would suggest. Yes, there are problems, and yes there are backlogs, but other than the hotspots of London and the South East region, I think that most tribunals are ticking along relatively well and obviously the tribunal service is taking action to try to deal with the backlog. We have seen just recently a new substantial cohort of employment judges being taken on so there are things going on to try and alleviate some of this backlog. There is also this idea that's floating around that cases aren't being listed until 2022 and, again, that's not correct in my experience and, in fact, at the National User Group meeting of the employment tribunal which last met at the end of June it was made quite clear that with the exception of those difficult regions, London and the South East, nowhere else in the country are cases currently being listed for 2022. As I say, that was correct as of 30th of June this year. My own experience, yes, in the London Central Tribunal we're seeing multi day cases being listed for about 12 months hence. So I've had a recent matter in that has been listed for heating for five days in London Central in October 2021 but equally, for example, I was dealing with a case this week in the Glasgow employment tribunal, it was listed in August and the hearing will take place the first few days in December so it isn't the case that every single tribunal in the country is suffering huge backlogs of cases and lengthy waiting periods at all.”

    Finally, on dealing with that backlog, we might soon have non-specialist judges hearing cases. In September Business Minister Paul Scully introduces raft of technical changes to increase flexibility to employment tribunal system and that was one of the proposals. Interestingly, the unions are not happy about that – the TUC thinks hearings would become more formal and disadvantage unrepresented claimants. They say judgements would take longer and appeals would be more likely and that could gum up the system even more. We will see.