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Employment Tribunal Hearings

Volume 790: debated on Thursday 26 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to reduce the backlog of Employment Tribunal hearings that has arisen since the Supreme Court ruling in July 2017 that the high level of fees previously levied was unlawful.

My Lords, we wish to ensure that employment cases are dealt with swiftly and effectively. We are taking action to deal with the tribunals’ increased case load. This includes setting aside extra days for judges to hear tribunal cases, as well as developing plans to recruit more tribunal judges. We continue to monitor the situation closely.

My Lords, this issue was drawn to my attention by a newspaper headline—in the Times, not the Morning Star—entitled “Tribunals gridlocked by surge in claims”. Among the many cases cited by the trade union USDAW and Thompsons Solicitors was a case in London, which happened in November 2017 and will be heard in January 2019, and a case in Watford, listed for a three-day hearing in January 2018 but postponed until September due to “having overbooked and a lack of judicial resources”. Is the Minister aware that ACAS conciliators have reported that they are overwhelmed by the increase in claims? For example, solicitors in Newcastle have been unable to get through to speak to anyone for two weeks. In detail, what steps do the Government intend to take, and within what timescale, to ensure that the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” is no longer exemplified in the workings of the employment tribunal system as a result of what the Supreme Court ruled was its unlawful and unconstitutional imposition of fees of up to £1,200?

On the last point, the Supreme Court determined that it was lawful to charge fees for the tribunal; it was the level of fees that was considered disproportionate. The time taken for tribunal cases was in the region of 26 to 28 weeks per case for resolution. That has increased to about 33 weeks because there was a significant increase in applications to the tribunals after the decision in July 2017. We have put in place a process for recruiting a further 54 tribunal judges for employment tribunals, which should increase capacity by about 44%. In addition, we are now taking steps to increase the number of fee-paid judges in the tribunal system; indeed, fee-paid judge sittings have increased by 180% since July 2017. We are also conscious of the need to employ additional staff in employment tribunals; that is being undertaken at the present time. I apologise for the length of my answer, but I felt I should give the noble Lord’s question a full response.

My Lords, in the impact assessment supporting the 2013 fees order, the Government said that they were unable to predict how many employment tribunal claims would be deterred by the introduction of the fees but that they should deter unmeritorious claims. We now know that there was a 75% drop in claims following their introduction, with absolutely no effect on their success rate, and that this massive backlog has built up following their abolition. Will the noble and learned Lord accept that this is clear evidence that high tribunal and court fees deter meritorious claims and so reduce access to justice? Will he assure the House that any future impact assessments on this topic will have regard to such evidence?

When the coalition Government introduced tribunal fees to employment tribunals, they did so in the belief that they were taking a proportionate step to meet the costs of our courts and tribunals. Indeed, the totality of fees income is still less than half the cost of our courts and tribunals. Going forward, we will be conscious of the need to ensure access to justice—a point made by Lord Reed in his judgment in the UNISON case.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is considerable sympathy for him having to keep returning to this House to defend the indefensible situation that the Treasury, being apparently unaware that justice delayed is justice denied and that access to justice is beyond price, has imposed on his department? What does he think of the Treasury’s custom of hiding behind the skirts of the spending departments?

My Lords, in what may be my last statement from the Dispatch Box, I observe that the Treasury has had to respond to the dramatic economic turnaround that occurred after 2008. That has had an impact on spending departments, but we require to maintain a coherent economic policy for the whole country.