Leading justice organisations have urged the lord chancellor to temporarily double the three-month deadline for bringing discrimination or harassment claims to the employment tribunal to protect workers during the Covid-19 lockdown.

More than 20 organisations have written to Robert Buckland, including the Law Centres Network, Liberty, Justice, the Centre for Women’s Justice, and Rights of Women.

They say the three-month time limit is one of the shortest deadlines for any kind of civil case and will now be increasingly difficult to meet.

The letter states: ‘Many law firms and not-for-profit advice agencies are furloughing staff and reducing some services, such as free drop-in clinics. As the time limit for harassment and discrimination cases runs from what the tribunal concludes is the last unlawful act, this puts individuals without the benefit of specialist legal advice at a particular disadvantage, as they may not be able to identify when their time will run out.

‘Further problems arise from the fact that these kinds of claims are more likely to prompt internal grievance investigations than other types of claim and those resulting processes are being delayed significantly by the ongoing lockdown. Nonetheless, limitation periods run on, meaning people are currently forced to start the ACAS process and issue proceedings before internal investigations are completed.’

Judges have the power to extend the time limit but the organisations say ‘this is a high and uncertain bar upon which no prudent claimant would ever rely’.

Chilli Reid, executive director of Advice UK, said his charity has dealt with a significant increase in employment enquiries while Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said workers observing social distancing ‘must be confident that, while they play by the rules, they do not lose out to rogue employers who break the rules’.

Suzanne McKie QC, principal lawyer at Farore Law, specialises in discrimination and harassment cases. She said the request is a ‘small ask that could make such a big difference’.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the lord chancellor will respond to the letter but extending the time limits would come under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The department has been approached for comment on whether it is considering or plans to extend the time limits.