Employment tribunals: Government considers overhaul

Lord Sugar in "You're fired" mode
Image caption Sacking somebody requires consultation, not a snap decision like Lord Sugar on The Apprentice

In a sun-filled tribunal room overlooking the rooftops of Leeds, a 20-year-old chef nervously explains how his former employer failed to pay his wages.

The young man, dressed in a white shirt and sitting close to his mother, is told he is not the first employee of this restaurant forced to go to a tribunal to chase what he is owed.

In neighbouring tribunal room C, a tax authority employee tells the panel why he believes he has been the victim of workplace discrimination while suffering from asthma.

It is a typical day ofemployment tribunal hearings- but the rules are set to change as the government considers an overhaul of proceedings in these courts.

Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly claims the system "weighs heavily on the public purse". Under the plans, those bringing a case to a tribunal, claiming anything from unfair dismissal to sexual discrimination, would be charged a fee for a service that, for now, is free.

The plans have been dismissed as "chequebook justice" by the TUC, which says that the move will be seized upon by unscrupulous employers to "discriminate at will".

Suited panel

Step into any tribunal room across the country and you will find it to be a mix of modern and traditional, of formality and informality.

In fact, when employment tribunals were created in the 1960s, they were supposed to be free of jargon and legal representation was discouraged.

In Leeds, you will often see three middle-aged suited men sit as a panel on a raised platform scribbling down notes as they listen intently to the evidence presented to them.

Yet there are none of the gowns or wigs you will see in a criminal Crown Court, and tribunal judges make an obvious effort to explain the proceedings to claimants in simple, accessible terms.

For the young, apprehensive chef, the proceedings last less than an hour. He explains to a solitary tribunal judge how he was not paid all his wages during five weeks of work at the restaurant in Leeds.

"Every time I asked them for my wages, they said they did not have the key to the safe, or I would have to wait for a manager to come in," he says.

He expected to be paid £5 an hour, just above the level of the national minimum wage. After complaining, he was invited to resign and, in the end, felt obliged to do so.

Nobody from the restaurant bothered to turn up to the hearing, to hear the tribunal judge accept the young man's evidence, and rule that his wages were unlawfully deducted and that he was effectively unfairly dismissed.

'Slow, expensive and daunting'

Under the government's proposals, anyone who wins a case against their employer will be refunded any fee they pay at the start of the tribunal process.

Image caption Awards of thousands of pounds can be made by the tribunal judges

It is unlikely the young chef, someone of limited financial means, would have to pay all or any of the initial fee to bring the case if the rules change.

In the adjacent tribunal room in the eight-court complex in Leeds, a senior science teacher is bringing a case against a local council for constructive dismissal.

People like him are much more likely to face a fee - of anything between £200 and more than £1,750 - to have a tribunal case heard from April 2013, under the government's plans.Consultation on these proposalsends on Tuesday.

The position of Mr Djanogly, the minister overseeing the plans, is that the introduction of fees will reduce spurious claims from those who, at present, can bring a case for free and so have nothing to lose.

It would also encourage discussion, conciliation and mediation in the workplace without the need to go through the "slow, expensive and daunting" experience of court.

The Treasury says that, even now, more than 80% of applications made to an employment tribunal do not result in a full hearing.

Almost 40% of applicants withdraw their cases, but employers still have to pay legal fees in preparing a defence. More than 40% settle out of court, and there is no record of how much applicants settle for.

Reducing these cases would give employers more confidence to hire people, according to the CBI. This "red tape" will be reduced from April when the normal qualifying period of employment to go to a tribunal is doubled to two years, a move that the government estimates will lead to 2,000 fewer claims.

The financial argument made by the minister is that the 218,100 claims and 2,048 appeals brought in 2010-11 in England, Wales and Scotland cost a total of £84m.

This cost is being picked up by taxpayers "despite the fact that most of them will never use the service", the minister argues.

'Chequebook justice'

This last point is particularly abhorrent to the TUC, which would argue that open justice is far more important that whether workers would consider paying for it.

Image caption Rule changes for tribunals will come into force in April, with new fees planned for April 2013

"This is chequebook justice pure and simple and is a profoundly regressive step," TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said in a speech in January.

"As so few discrimination claims succeed at tribunal anyway, many potential claimants, particularly those who lack the support of a union, would be put off from making a claim - giving a green light to unscrupulous employers to discriminate at will.

"That is something that ought to concern everyone who cares about justice, fairness and equality."

Cases heard at tribunals range from claims of discrimination - on the grounds of disability, race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief - to a breach of contract, failure of employers to pay various entitlements or equal pay.

The median average award made by a tribunal is £5,000.

The 20-year-old chef, now a student, was awarded £2,489 in unpaid wages and compensation.

But his battle is not over. Nobody was at court from the restaurant company to sign the cheque, and tribunals do not have enforcement powers.

His next stop is the county court, and another legal process to ensure payment is made.

As the government plans for some workers to pay for justice, this young chef has to wait for justice to pay.

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