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Employment Tribunals: an introduction
Employment Tribunals deal with legal disputes in the workplace. Before applying to an Employment Tribunal, find out what they involve, whether you can make a claim, and where to get help and advice.
What is an Employment Tribunal?
Employment Tribunals hear cases involving employment disputes which have not been resolved by other means. While an Employment Tribunal hearing is less formal than a court hearing, the decisions made by Employment Tribunals are legally binding and must be followed.
Note that the person that you are in dispute with may not necessarily be your employer. It could be your trade union or a professional body that you belong to.
You give evidence under an oath or affirmation, and if you lie you can be convicted of perjury.
Cases are usually heard by a panel of three people, called a 'Tribunal' - including a legally qualified Employment Judge, and two non-legal or 'lay' members who are people who have experience dealing with employment problems from the point of view of employers or employees.
As Tribunal Judges and non-legal members are completely independent and not part of the government, they make decisions impartially. Their judgements are based on the law, evidence and arguments put to them.
The non-legal members bring knowledge of workplace procedures to the proceedings. Sometimes the Employment Judge will hear the case alone - for example, to identify the issues in the case that will be dealt with at the full hearing or to deal with financial claims caused by the termination of your employment.
There is no charge for making a claim to an Employment Tribunal. So unless you are paying a representative (for example, a solicitor) there is normally no cost in making a claim.
However, the Employment Tribunal can order you to pay costs (known as expenses in Scotland) if it thinks you or your representative has behaved 'unreasonably' during the case.
Before making a claim
It's often better to try to sort out problems with your employer formally before making an Employment Tribunal claim. Speak to your employer - you might have a misunderstanding or may be able to reach an agreement.
If this isn't possible, try to resolve the problem through your employer's grievance or disciplinary process - you could also try the help of a third party mediator or conciliator.
There is an Acas Code of Practice that describes a reasonable standard of behaviour for dealing with grievances and disciplinary issues at work. In most kinds of cases Employment Tribunals can decide to award you money if you win your case. The amount of money they award can be increased or decreased by up to 25 per cent if they decide either side has been unreasonable in not following the Code. For more information, follow the links below.
Claims that can be heard by an Employment Tribunal
An Employment Tribunal can only decide cases that relate to specific rights, so it is important that you know exactly what you are claiming. For example, if you are complaining about not being paid, it's called 'unlawful deductions from wages'. If you think your employer treats you less favourably because you are disabled, it's 'disability discrimination'. The range of complaints Employment Tribunals deal with includes:
- unfair dismissal (including 'constructive dismissal' which happens when an employee resigns because they believe the employer has breached the contract of employment)
- discrimination on the grounds of disability, race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief
- not being allowed to have someone accompany you to a disciplinary or grievance hearing
- not being consulted in a redundancy situation
- breach of contract
- equal pay
There are many others. A full list can be found by using the link below, ‘Find out what other types of complaint can be heard at an Employment Tribunal’. Alternatively you can call Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) or the Employment Tribunals public enquiry line if you need to know whether what you want to make a claim for can be dealt with by an Employment Tribunal.
Time limits for making a claim
In most cases, you must make an application within three months of either the date that:
- your employment ended
- the matter you are complaining about happened
An Employment Tribunal will not normally accept claims received after the relevant time limit. In very exceptional circumstances Employment Tribunals can extend this time limit. You can check this by calling the Employment Tribunals public enquiry line on 08457 959 775. You should act quickly to find out more if you think your claim may already be out of time or the end of the three month period is close.
Getting help and advice
Before making a claim you should try to get advice on how you may be able to resolve your complaint without the need to go to an Employment Tribunal.
Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues.
You can also get advice from a trade union if you are a member, or from services such as a Citizens Advice Bureau.
You don’t need knowledge of the law to make a claim, but you may find it useful to get legal advice or find someone to represent you.
If you live in Scotland you may be able to get free professional advice and assistance from a solicitor under the legal aid scheme.The Law Society of Scotland has a list of solicitors who specialise in employment law.
In special circumstances, you may also be able to get help towards legal representation. This is called ABWOR – 'assistance by way of representation'. It will depend on your financial circumstances.
Employment Tribunals in Northern Ireland
If you live in Northern Ireland and have an employment dispute, you will need to contact the Office of the Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal (OITFET). You can find out more by using the link below.