Employment tribunal claims face more restrictions

Business Secretary Vince Cable says it is essential to give businesses that want to expand the confidence to hire more staff

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Workers who think they have been unfairly dismissed may find it harder to take their employers to an employment tribunal.

The government is proposing to raise the length of qualifying employment for such a claim from one to two years.

Claimants may also have to pay a fee to bring any tribunal case.

The proposals, on which the government is consulting, are in response to employers' worries about an apparent increase in unjustified claims.

"We've heard loud and clear the concerns from businesses up and down the country that the system has become too costly, takes too much time, and that it is too easy to make unmerited or vexatious claims," said a government spokesman.

"We're particularly concerned that it places unnecessary strains on small businesses," he added.

'Positive move'

The proposal for a longer qualifying period applies only to claims for unfair dismissal and not to other problems that can be taken to a tribunal, such as discrimination at work.

Official figures show that the number of tribunal claims rose by 56% last year to a record 236,000.

It costs on average £4,000 to defend each claim.

The plan to deter some unfair dismissal claims was welcomed by the CBI.

"For far too long, the tribunals system has put the interests of lawyers above those of employers and employees," said John Cridland, the CBI's director-general designate.

"Extending the qualifying period for unfair dismissal is a positive move that will give employers, especially smaller ones, the flexibility and confidence they need to hire," he added.

Conciliation

However, the TUC said the rise in claims reflected the way that some employers treated their staff.

Start Quote

If firms treated their staff fairly, few would ever find themselves taken to court”

End Quote Brendan Barber TUC general secretary

It said that most of last year's claims were multiple equal pay claims covering large groups of workers and that the number of individual claims was low.

And the TUC said employment tribunals already had the power to demand a deposit from a claimant, or to strike out a claim that was "vexatious or misconceived".

"[Employers] have lost sight of the fact that if firms treated their staff fairly, few would ever find themselves taken to court," said the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.

"Rather than being taken in by the employer lobby, the government should stand firm and allow employment tribunals to continue holding rogue employers to account, and delivering justice for all workers who have been discriminated against or treated unfairly."

Guy Lamb, an employment lawyer at law firm DLA Piper, said the rise in claims also reflected the increase in unemployment.

"In a recessionary environment you always get more claims," he said.

"People when they leave jobs, they are dismissed for whatever reason, they are not walking into new jobs, are short of money, they are more likely to sue in those circumstances."

Fees

Other changes being proposed are that all unfair dismissal clams should first go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) to try conciliation first.

Another proposal is that unfair dismissal cases should be heard by a single judge, rather than a pair, with witnesses statements read in advance rather than witnesses having to attend in person.

The Ministry of Justice will consult later this spring on introducing fees for any tribunal claim.

No figure has been put forward but the TUC says it is worried it could end up as high as £500.

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