Labor disputes in the UK are resolved through a system of employment tribunals. Although the activities of the tribunals are directly related to the administration of justice, they are not part of the court system and are administrative, not judicial bodies. Employment tribunals are not the only tribunals in the UK. There are a number of similar systems operating in various fields, from medicine and social services to aviation, television, and immigration. Despite a high number of resolved cases yearly, the efficacy of employment tribunals may be put under question after recent issues with legal aid funding and The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act of 2013. This paper describes the structure and the role of the tribunals, current problems of the system, and provide arguments on whether they are an effective means of resolving labor issues today.
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The tribunals were organized in 1964 and were initially vested with minimal powers mainly to deal with complaints of violation of the law related to the termination of work, payment of severance compensation upon dismissal to reduce staff, and unfair dismissal (Corby, 2015, p. 161). With the development of labor legislation, the functions of the tribunals expanded (Corby, 2015). After the adoption of the law on equal pay and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex and race, these bodies were given the right to deal with complaints in the mentioned areas (Corby, 2015). To date, most disputes arising from labor relations are subject to employment tribunals.
Throughout the country, there are approximately 70 employment tribunals that are part of the UK administrative system. The tribunals account for a significant number of resolved disputes in the country (Corby, 2015). Thus, employment tribunals hear more than one hundred thousand disputes annually, with more than a third of them ending with the conclusion of a settlement agreement between the parties (Clark, 2019, para. 2). This number, however, has been steadily rising since 2006 and 2007 (Clark, 2019). The advantages of the tribunals over ordinary courts are apparent – the comparative cheapness of the process, accessibility for a wide range of people, the absence of legal difficulties inherent in the judicial process, and the lack of need for specialized knowledge and experience in this area (Corby, 2015).
The UK tribunals system can be divided into the tribunals of England and Wales, and the tribunals of Scotland. The activities of both are regulated by independent legislative acts, although the differences between them are mainly in the terminology used. The system is headed by the Senior President of Tribunals, appointed by the Lord Chancellor and the Queen (Corby, 2015). The President of the Tribunals is responsible for the organization and operation of the tribunals (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 2019). The President is also responsible for the following issues – determining the number of active tribunals, their location, the appointment of regional heads, the selection of presiding judges and assessors (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 2019).
Although the named official has extensive powers, they are all in the administrative sphere (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 2019). The President of the Tribunals is not entitled by his or her decisions to give instructions to the tribunals on the application of the law or recommendations of a procedural nature (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 2019). Regional heads of tribunals are appointed from among those with at least seven years of experience in the field of jurisprudence (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, 2019). They make up the so-called panel and perform approximately the same functions as the President of the Tribunals, but with respect to their region.
The process begins with submitting an application that is examined by the clerk of the tribunal (GOV.UK, 2015). If the secretary finds that it is impossible to elicit the applicant’s requirements from the application, he or she may contact the applicant and suggest that the statement should be corrected (GOV.UK, 2015). In this case, until the application is amended, it is not registered. However, if the applicant confirms that the form is correct and no changes can be made, the secretary is required to register it in the usual manner. The fee for applying is not charged, but the whole process may require some amount of funding on behalf of the applicant (GOV.UK, 2015). After receiving the statement of claim, the defendant must submit a response to the report within 21 days (GOV.UK, 2015). In the response, the defendant must indicate his or her name and location and explain whether he or she intends to challenge the stated claims in full or in any part, and if so, on what basis (GOV.UK, 2015). If the tribunal does not receive a response from the defendant within the specified time period, the latter is deprived of the right to participate in the process, except to intercede.
The hearing procedure itself is much less formal than in court. The tribunal has the right to administer the process in a manner that it considers most suitable for a quick and fair resolution of the case (GOV.UK, 2015). It is also not bound by the formal rules on the admissibility of evidence in force in the courts but proceeds from its obligation to make decisions on all issues, including the question of the admissibility of evidence, based on the principles of honesty and justice (GOV.UK, 2015). The tribunal plays an active role in the hearing and has the right to ask questions to witnesses, representatives of the parties, make procedural decisions, and get acquainted with the case file (GOV.UK, 2015). The tribunal makes decisions by a majority vote, but if the tribunal is composed of a presiding judge and one assessor, the presiding vote is decisive.
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Usually, each party bears the costs independently, and the tribunal does not have the right to determine the settlement of legal fees at the expense of the losing party (GOV.UK, 2015). The decisions of the tribunal must be fulfilled by the parties unconditionally (GOV.UK, 2015). If the losing party refuses, the other party has the right to apply to the district court for a writ of execution (GOV.UK, 2015). If the decision has been appealed, a warrant of execution is still issued (GOV.UK, 2015). However, the amount awarded is not paid to the party but is sent to the court before the end of the proceedings.
It is noted that during its existence, the tribunals have established themselves as a competent authority capable of quickly and efficiently resolving disputes in the field of labor relations (Corby, 2015). This opinion is supported by the constant increase in the range of functions and the extent of power with which the legislation bestows tribunals (Corby, 2015). The absence of a strict judicial procedure, the simplicity, and accessibility of the rules, the focus on quick and effective settlement of disputes, preferably by means of an amicable agreement between the parties, make the efficacy of the tribunals evident (Corby, 2015).
Specializing in a definite area of legal relations, the tribunals are better organised than the courts to resolve disputes between the parties in this area. In addition, they significantly offload the number of cases in the district courts. In employment tribunals, the procedures are held in an informal setting where the services of lawyers are often not required. In many cases, the tribunals themselves decide which processes to use, and these procedures remain much less formal and more straightforward than in the ordinary courts of the United Kingdom. For these reasons, the efficacy of employment tribunals was not significantly affected by the recent issues in legal aid funding. Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act that was enacted in 2012 and was set to reduce legal aid spending by 350 million pounds (Bowcott, 2018, para. 8). As a result, between 2010 and 2018, legal aid spending experienced a fall by 37% (Bowcott, 2018, para. 8). To worsen the situation, The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 introduced complications to the process of submitting claims to employment tribunals (Mangan, 2013).
A small portion of the legislation touched on the topic of employment tribunals and proposed several reforms (Mangan, 2013). Notably, the Act introduced a mandatory consultation with Acas prior to submitting applications and fees for making claims (Mangan, 2013). Before submitting their claims to the tribunal, people have to share details of their application with Acas (Mangan, 2013). In some cases, Acas promotes a settlement between the claimant and the defendant before reaching the tribunal (Mangan, 2013). The government’s motive is clear – if more cases are settled by Acas before the application reaches the tribunal, the less funding the employment tribunals will require. However, the efficacy of this plan is put under scrutiny because of several factors. First, funding cuts significantly impacted Acas, and it is challenging for this body to deliver satisfactory results with such an amount of financing (Mangan, 2013). In 2004, 850 thousand pounds were budgeted for implementation costs related to Acas (Mangan, 2013, p. 413). Today, however, no such sum is indicated in the budget (Mangan, 2013).
The Act also introduced fees for launching claims – the primary reason was the government’s idea that all people that want to use government services should pay for them. Also, fees were set to help compensate for the 23% budget cut that was introduced in 2011 (Mangan, 2013, p. 414). The government planned to retrieve 33% of the total expenditure of employment tribunals (Mangan, 2013, p. 414). However, it not only deprived the significant portion of the population of opportunities to seek legal assistance but also complicated the process itself, by making it a “daunting experience” (Mangan, 2013, p. 414). It was possible to get a waiver for people that met some income criteria (Mangan, 2013). It was also noted that people that are more likely to abandon their cases were eligible for the fee reduction (Mangan, 2013). Researchers suggest that earning less than 25 thousand pounds per year is a decisive factor (Mangan, 2013).
Statistics may also prove employment tribunals as an effective means for settling labor issues. The number of cases is continuously rising, and it is indicated that the demolition of tribunal fees is the primary reason. In 2013, the government introduced a fee of up to 1200 pounds to decrease the number of weak and malicious cases (Adams and Prassl, 2017). Despite the employment tribunal experiencing a 79% decrease in the overall number of cases, much of the population was deprived of access to legal assistance (BBC News, 2017). Legal aid cuts worsened the situation, but the fee was deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court and was canceled in 2017 (Adams and Prassl, 2017). Furthermore, the government refunds individuals that made a claim between 29 July 2013 and 26 July 2017 (GOV.UK, 2019).
In conclusion, it can be said that the current structure of employment tribunals is effective due to the high number of resolved disputes. Challenges arise not because there is a problem within the system of tribunals, but when the government issues an accompanying law that poses a hindrance to accessing legal services. For instance, introducing fees for launching claims made it significantly harder for many people to access the services of the employment tribunals. However, it is not the case that the system itself is ineffective.
Acas. (2015) Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. Web.
Acas. (2019) Fair and unfair dismissals. Web.
Adams, A. and Prassl, J. (2017) ‘Employment tribunal fees, access to justice, & rational choice theory: A primer’, SSRN, pp. 1-13. Web.
BBC News. (2017) Employment tribunal fees ruled unlawful. Web.
Bowcott, O. (2018) Legal aid: how has it changed in 70 years? Web.
Clark, I. (2019) Employment tribunal awards statistics 2018/2019. Web.
Corby, S. (2015) ‘British employment tribunals: From the side-lines to centre stage’, Labor History, 56(2), pp. 161-179.
Courts and Tribunals Judiciary. (2019). Senior president of the tribunals. Web.
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GOV.UK. (2015) Employment tribunal procedure rules. Web.
GOV.UK. (2019) Make a claim to an employment tribunal. Web.
Mangan, D. (2013) ‘Employment tribunal reforms to boost the economy’, Industrial Law Journal, 42(4), pp. 409-421.