Employment claims must be handled with ‘real caution’ should an online court to deal with lower-value disputes be established, specialist lawyers have warned.

Responding to a review of civil courts in England and Wales by Lord Justice Briggs, the Employment Lawyers Association said ‘modest’ sums were likely to be at stake for the majority of employment law disputes. 

‘On this basis, at first glance, employment claims may appear suitable candidates for the jurisdiction of an online court,’ it said.

‘Yet such claims are also characterised by their complexity, and the manner in which they are handled needs to take into account the special nature of the relationship between employers and employees’.

The association ‘wholeheartedly’ supported initiatives to improve access to justice.

‘However, [the association] recommends the exercise of real caution before contemplating the determination of employment claims via any new online process which may not incorporate the special focus and safeguards of the existing employment tribunal system,’ it said.

The ‘depersonaliation’ of a dispute could impact negatively on the relationship between an employee and employer, the association warned.

‘In straightforward “debt” cases where an ongoing employer is in fact refusing to pay, negative impacts on the relationship may be a small consideration,’ it said.

‘But if, in fact, the employee is mistaken, trust and confidence between the parties may be seriously damaged by a decision to bring a claim.

‘More generally, ELA would be concerned that the industrial relations landscape could be altered undesirably by a system which allows regular impersonal court intervention during the life of the employment relationship.’

The association suggested restricting an online court’s jurisdiction to claims brought after the employment relationship had ended.

The judicial office confirmed in August the terms of reference for a review led by Court of Appeal judge Lord Justice Briggs, which will produce an interim report by the end of the year.

The report will make particular proposals for the deployment of judges and delegated judicial officers (DJO) to particular classes of case.

The association said a DJO could possibly deal with all or part of a claim where there was only a dispute of fact. But an employment judge who had the experience and qualification to determine if the case was ‘simple’ should decide whether the claim was suitable to be considered by a DJO.

The association suggested a DJO should have at least five years’ employment law experience.