A Plain English Guide To British Employment Law

Employment Tribunals

What is an employment tribunal?

Employment Tribunals hear cases involving employment law 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.

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 law 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 employment 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.

What are the employment tribunal fees?

As of 29th July 2013, a range of employment tribunal fees are payable.

Less complex claims (such as unfair deduction from wages and redundancy pay) cost £160 to issue with another £230 being payable upon reaching a hearing. More complicated claims (such as unfair dismissal, equal pay or discrimination) cost £250 to issue with a further £950 becoming payable upon the case reaching a hearing. There are various other fees which are detailed in this Ministry of Justice factsheet.

If you win the case, you may be entitled to a reimbursement of these fees. For those who cannot afford to pay the fees in the first place, the Fee Remission Scheme will be extended to ensure that people are not prevented from seeking justice if they cannot (objectively) afford the fees.

As of 6th April 2014, employers who lose employment tribunal cases may be ordered to pay a financial penalty of between £100 and £5,000 under certain circumstances. Employers will receive a 50% reduction of the penalty where the penalty is paid within 21 days.

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.

Anyone who wishes to take a case to an employment tribunal must use the Acas’ Early Conciliation service – Acas must be notified by completing this online form. Acas will then try to achieve a settlement through conciliation. If, after a month, no deal has been reached, the case will then be able to proceed to an employment tribunal, which will need to be provided with an Acas Early Conciliation Reference Number.

Which claims 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.

What are the time limits for making an employment tribunal 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.

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 employment law to make a claim, but you may find it useful to get legal advice or find someone to represent you.