Thousands of employment tribunal hearings are being pushed back at short notice, new figures have revealed, with experts warning of increased stress for all involved.
Data obtained by People Management under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request showed that 3,365 employment tribunals were postponed within 48 hours of the hearing being scheduled to begin between 1 August 2017 and 31 March 2018 – the dates for which data was available.
The 48-hour window was based on calendar days so included weekends, bank holidays and other non-working days. Cases that were adjourned on the day of the hearing were not included in the figures.
The postponement figures appear to back other data which suggests the tribunal system has been strained since the Supreme Court ruled last year that tribunal fees should be abolished.
Figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in June revealed that the number of single claims – claims brought by a single person, rather than by a group of people – received in the first quarter of 2018 increased to 9,252, up 118 per cent compared with the year before. In the same time period, the outstanding caseload increased by 89 per cent.
However, an MoJ spokesperson revealed claimants (the employees bringing the claims) requested postponements in 87 per cent of the cases, adding: "Every effort is made to ensure delays are kept to a minimum."
“There have always been postponements; postponements cause stress to the parties (and the lawyers). Claims languish, often for months, before everyone has to refocus their efforts with a renewed hearing date,” Barry Stanton, head of employment law at Boyes Turner, told People Management. “Those costs – and the need to recall events which are now even older – lead inevitably to dissatisfaction.
“Sadly, postponements seem to be an inevitable part of the tribunal system. The alternative would be listing cases to be heard, with a guarantee that each case will be heard on the scheduled date. Doing that would lead to significant delays in getting cases to a hearing or significantly increasing tribunal resources, with the inevitable result that tribunals will incur costs without any tangible benefit and sit idle.”
Recently-published minutes from Wales Employment Tribunal summer user group meetings, which were held in June, noted the tribunals often listed more hearings than they could accommodate because of the high number of settlements and withdrawals. However, it added that the Wales Employment Tribunal now provided information sheets to solicitors and barristers in advance, which flagged when hearings were at risk of short notice cancellation, to mitigate some clients’ frustration.
Calling the number of delays revealed in the FOI “disappointing”, Croner's associate director Paul Holcroft added: “The tribunal process can be distressing for all parties and postponements will only add to the distress felt – something which will be even more heightened when the postponement occurs so close to the hearing date.
“Although some postponements can be completely unforeseen – for example, those relating to adverse weather or hearing centre facilities – the lack of judicial resources must be a huge contributory factor and the quicker this problem is fixed, the better.”
Last month, the Judicial Appointments Commission closed a recruitment exercise for 54 salaried employment tribunal judges.
At the national employment tribunal user group meeting in May, the president of employment tribunals of England and Wales – judge Brian Doyle – predicted that around 400 applications would be received, with offers for positions expected to be made in January 2019.
The FOI statistics echoed earlier findings from a survey by the Employment Lawyers Association, reported on by the Law Society Gazette in April. This poll discovered almost half (45 per cent) of the 320 lawyers who responded had experienced postponements because of lack of judicial resources.