Number of tribunals returns to pre-pandemic levels – but ‘underfunding’ could mean longer waiting times

Experts say employees may be choosing job security over risk of litigation after single claim receipts fall following ‘tumultuous’ period

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Tribunal numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels, according to new figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

The data shows the number of single claims received and disposed of dropped by 1 per cent and 3 per cent respectively between July-September, compared to the same period a year ago. 

The MoJ said: “Single claim receipts have returned to levels seen prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Single claim caseload outstanding (at 32,000) has shown early signs of decreasing since Q4 22/23, now below the peak levels seen in 2009/10 when it was 36,000 in Q2 of that year.”

In the same period, multiple employment tribunal cases – which ​​involve a group of people making claims – increased, with receipts rising by 8 per cent and disposals rising 78 per cent year on year. 

There were 12,000 multiple claim receipts, 13,000 disposals and 438,000 outstanding at the end of September. However, the report said: “Multiple claims tend to be more volatile as they can be skewed by a high number of claims against a single employer.”

David Harris, employment law solicitor at DPH Legal, told People Management: “The decrease in tribunal claims between that period when compared to the previous year is likely evidence of a return to normal claim volumes which existed pre-Covid, rather than evidence of an overall reduction in appetite for tribunal claims in England and Wales.”

Throughout the pandemic, he explained, there was a spike in claims due to the “tumultuous nature of that time period in terms of employment relations generally. 

“That said, we have noted an increase in waiting times for claims to arrive at final hearing at the employment tribunal, which in some cases has now extended to 12 or 18 months from the date of issuing a claim.

“Tribunals are underfunded and this has resulted in them finding it difficult to process claims,” Harris said.  

“There is a long waiting time for employees before arriving at a hearing in front of a judge. The delays before claimants are able to obtain justice may act as a deterrent to those individuals considering legal action against their employer and dissuade them from pursuing a claim altogether.”

Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons, told People Management: “When considering the tribunal system, we know that the picture on the ground is a complex one and, in many ways, these latest figures reflect that.

“We know that there was a significant rise in the number of employment claims during the pandemic which, at the time, created something of a backlog in the system.

“Since then, there have been several changes which have helped to smooth things out. This includes further judicial appointments and clerks being trained to deal with routine correspondence.

“There could also be external factors at play. The uncertainty with the economy and a cost-of-living crisis has contributed to employees favouring job security and stability over the possible risks of litigation.”

The reduction could point to the system working efficiently in the early stages of a claim, he added.

“Finally, it is worth remembering that before you issue a claim, you must enter into a compulsory period of conciliation through Acas. It may well be that more claims are getting resolved at that early stage of the process without ever reaching tribunal.”

Michael Newman, partner at Leigh Day, said: “What we can see are two broad patterns – the number of individual claims being made has decreased, but by a small percentage, and the overall trend since 2019/20 remains broadly consistent.

“The second is the increase in multiple claims, which now outnumber single claims on all three measures – disposals, outstanding and receipts.

“Without knowing the substance of the claims, we cannot be too hasty about concluding anything about the state of employment rights in England and Wales. 

“However, the rise in multiple claims does possibly tell us something about access to justice and how workers are better able to access the facilities of an employment tribunal when they are part of a larger claim.”