The government has downplayed fears that the employment tribunal system has become too onerous for litigants in person with complex discrimination claims.
The House of Commons women and equalities committee today published the government's detailed response to its recommendations on non-disclosure agreements in discrimination cases.
The committee urged the government to review the practical support currently available to litigants in person.
The government said: 'Tribunals are intended to be less formal and intimidating than a court and users often appear without legal representation. The rules of the procedure were specifically revised in 2013 to use plain, simple language where possible. Panel members are trained to assist unrepresented parties by helping them to frame their questions where necessary. The role of the employment tribunal is to ensure that in line with the overriding objective that parties are on an equal footing and avoid unecessary formality.'
However, the government said it will assess how to improve existing support material and guidance.
It agreed with the committee that the online publication of tribunal judgments should not lead to claimants being blacklisted by future employers or deter them from going to the tribunal.
Employment tribunals have discretionary powers to protect the identity of parties to proceedings, the government said. 'However, before taking steps to anonymise judgments, the Employment Tribunal must consider the principle of open justice and the right to freedom of expression in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Employment Tribunal must carefully balance the individual right to privacy with these wider principles. In many proceedings, the principle of open justice outweighs the individual right to privacy'.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service staff are 'taking steps' to ensure that hearing participants and other parties are aware they can apply for written judgments to be anonymised.
The government noted the committee's concerns that fears of being pursued for employers' legal costs may be driving individuals to agree unwanted settlement terms. However, employment tribunals 'are meant to be a more informal venue than the civil courts system and for this reason there is a different approach to costs. They are not automatically payable by the unsuccessful party and are awarded on the basis of behaviour in bringing or conducting proceedings', it said.
Low awareness of tribunal powers was acknowledged. However, the government said guidance providing examples of how current powers are used 'will help all users understand the options available and ensure that employers are aware of the potential consequences of their actions'.
Proposals to extend tribunal time limits to bring a claim from three months to six are currently being assessed.
The government has already announced it will introduce legislation to crack down on the misuse of NDAs - though it has stopped short of making it a criminal offence to propose a confidentiality clause designed to prevent making protected disclosures.
It said: 'Given the current sanctions available where a lawyer is complicit in such conduct... there is already an increased risk of action when deliberate malpractice occurs.' However 'stronger sanctions' will be considered if measures to encourage or enforce appropriate behaviour 'prove ineffective'.
Announcing proposals to enhance protections for workers, business secretary Andrea Leadsom said: 'The overwhelming majority of businesses comply with the law, treating their employees with respect and fairness. But we cannot tolerate the small minority that use nasty tactics like non-disclosure agreements and withholding references to pressure employees into silence, often in cases of serious wrongdoing.'