Flagrant injustice of employment tribunal fees has been replaced by an understaffed system ill-equipped to deal with upsurge in claims.
On 8 March the Employment Tribunal service published statistics showing that there has been a 90% increase in single employment tribunal claims from October to December 2017 compared with the same quarter in 2016. This increase follows the sudden (and largely unexpected) abolition of the tribunal fees regime in July 2017, and so it is perhaps unsurprising. Indeed, the introduction of the fee regime in 2013 resulted in an 80% decrease in tribunal claims, so the latest figures largely represent a return to the ‘status quo ante’.
Unfortunately, the post-2013 reduction in claims was matched by a similar reduction in staffing levels within the ET and so the dramatic increase has left tribunals ill-equipped to deal with the sudden upsurge. The issues are obvious to any users of the system: phones ring out without being answered; emails are ignored; waiting rooms are at maximum capacity; hearings are not available for 12 months or more; and hearings are cancelled at short notice due to a lack of judges. The fact that the backlog of claims awaiting disposal has increased by 66% also indicates that the pared-down ET is failing to keep up.
These issues are clearly frustrating and have costs consequences for claimants and respondents. Of even more concern, the delays that inevitably result from these issues put at risk the fair administration of claims, with memories fading, documentary evidence destroyed and witnesses moving on. Gladstone’s comment that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is apposite.
The overriding objective of the tribunal system is to deal with cases fairly and justly in a manner which avoids delay and saves expense. However, as things stand, unnecessary delays and expense are experienced at every stage of the process. It was generally acknowledged that the fees regime obstructed justice by deterring individuals with legitimate claims from issuing proceedings. However, if claims continue at their current rate, without funds being committed to return the system to its previous level of resourcing, that threat to justice has been replaced by a new one.
James Williams, employment partner, Hill Dickinson, London