About Employment Tribunals
If you’ve never attended an employment tribunal before, you’ll want to know what to expect before you get in the hearing room before the judge.
The simplest & best advice for anyone due to attend a hearing is to go to a hearing in advance, and watch the proceedings as a member of the public. Getting to the hearing centre early, discussing your reason for attending with the clerk, and finding a suitable case (similar to the one you’re involved with) is also to be recommended, and you’ll find most attendants will be more than happy to discuss their case before the hearing & during the breaks.
The aim of employment tribunals is to provide an easily accessible, speedy, informal and inexpensive procedure for the settlement of employment disputes. Their procedures & rules are set out in law, currently the Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2004.
Employment tribunals (or industrial tribunals in Northern Ireland) are a formal part of the legal system, and deal with most legal employment matters. A judgement from a tribunal is not binding on another tribunal or court (the judgements don’t form case law), although a previous judgement can be put to a tribunal and may be influence its own judgement.
An employment tribunal is run very like a court, although with less formality: there are no gowns or wigs worn, and the parties remain seated during the proceedings. The informality is often an important element of tribunals, as it’s intended to help the parties settle in & feel more comfortable. That doesn’t mean that everything is on a casual basis though, as rulings can involve a lot of money, and therefore it’s important that the matters are treated with the seriousness they warrant.
There are hearing centres throughout the UK (details are available from the Employment Tribunals Service), and cases will normally be allocated to the office that handles the post code of the workplace.
Once at a venue, you will normally find a reception desk (this will be manned until about 10am, after which time you can use a telephone on or near the desk to speak with a clerk), and a display of the cases listed for the day.
As cases can be settled before a hearing, not all cases will be assigned, meaning there could be delays with a case not heard on the day. If it appears likely that a case will not be commenced on the advised day, the parties will be notified of this, and told to return the next day.
There is a lot of waiting around at tribunals, and the Claimants and Respondents will each have a waiting room.
Composition of a tribunal
A tribunal is composed of an Employment Judge, who can sit alone for some hearings, or with two lay members. The lay members are drawn from a panel after consultation with employer & employee organisations – the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Lay members will normally have experience in employment matters, and will utilise this to assist them in considering the merits of a case.
A clerk will also be appointed to a hearing, although they often won’t be present for the whole case. The clerk will introduce themselves early on the first day at the hearing, and can be of general assistance to the parties before & during the hearing; this does not include legal assistance, and the parties to a tribunal should arrange this in advance. The clerk will collect the bundle for the hearing, can suggest where any printing (the tribunal will charge for photocopying if a party has arrived unprepared) or other facilities are available locally, and may be able to arrange a room if the two sides want to negotiate the case at any stage. Their main role though is to the tribunal.
Types of Hearing
There are four types of hearing that a tribunal can hold (more details for each of these can be found in the glossary section). These are:
- Case management discussions;
- Pre-hearing review;
- A r26 hearing (including the main hearing);
- Review hearing;
In the Hearing
Parties will be escorted into the hearing room by the clerk, and should not enter until told to do so. Mobile phones and other devices should be switched off or put on a silent setting before entering, although laptop computers may be used.
The room will normally be laid out with a table for the Claimant and the Respondent, a witness table, and a table or platform (often elevated slightly) for the tribunal members. There will also be seating for the public to observe the proceedings – most cases are heard in public.
The employment judge is addressed as Sir or Madam.
There is no prescribed order for which side presents their case first, although the nature of the case may influence this.
Witnesses will give an oath before giving their statement. This may be a prepared statement (the tribunal will often direct for these to be prepared & exchanged in advance), in which case they will either be required to read the statement, or affirm it to be accurate, with the judge directing the parties to read their own copies of this document.
After a witness statement is given, the party that called the witness will have a chance to ask questions of the witness; these are generally helpful to the case, and therefore relatively tame in their nature. After examination, the witness can be cross-examined by the opposing side, and this is where questions will become more awkward. The judge will intervene if an advocate is being unreasonable on a witness, although some discretion has to be allowed as the party wants to get what they will consider to be important evidence exposed.
After the cross-examination, the first party will be able to re-examine the witness, following which the members of the tribunal may ask questions to clarify the evidence given.
Where a party is not represented at a hearing, the judge will often assist them in presenting their case, but this should not be relied upon too much, as the judge will remain impartial, and therefore more restrained in their questioning than a professional advocate.
After the witnesses, the parties will be given the chance to sum up their case, before the tribunal sits in private to consider the case. Judgements will be given on the day if time permits, but may otherwise be issued by post.
Resources for more assistance
This page is a very brief summary on some of the main details that attendants at a tribunal should be aware of. More guidance & information can be found on the Tribunals Website, which now includes two videos that briefly cover the process.
If your business is in the process of defending an employment tribunal and you require assistance in defending the claim, contact Employment Law Clinic now for a no-obligation quote.