Employment tribunal claims in the UK are taking an average of eight months to be heard, as the system struggles under government funding cuts and a surge in complaints. Employment tribunals are not responding to calls, solicitors have told the Law Society. A survey by the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) has also found that courts are taking longer to reply to written correspondence than they did a year ago.
The survey found that waiting times have risen for the fourth year in a row, meaning the average delay between a claim being lodged and an employment tribunal hearing it is now 237 days. This compares with 207 days last year, according to research by employment law firm GQ Littler.
As we reported in our article in May last year, claims have been on the rise since 2017, when the fees required to launch a claim were abolished. It came at a time when tribunal services were already struggling due to government funding cuts that make it tough to hire enough frontline staff to handle bigger caseloads. While 4,291 single claims were received in January to March 2017, 9,500 were received in January to March 2019. The number of outstanding cases has also surged by almost 40% compared to the same quarter last year.
That, in turn, led to growing delays that have left both employers and workers facing months of uncertainty. Raoul Parekh, a partner at GQ Littler, said: “Employment tribunals will soon reach breaking point. Eight-month delays are just not sustainable and can be very challenging for both parties involved. On this kind of timeline, it is not uncommon for key witnesses to leave, move to other roles or countries, and memories can also fade.” Delays have even affected the tribunal inquiries helpline, where callers can be left waiting for hours, he said.
Also, long wait times could deter serious claims against employers. A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing found that some whistleblowers were waiting between 18 and 36 months for their claim to reach a conclusion. It noted that the “excessive duration” of tribunal trials could discourage whistleblowers from presenting complaints, preferring to resign or retire instead of confronting their employer.
Commenting on the GQ Littler report, shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: “This is an unacceptable delay. Workers who have been unlawfully treated by bad bosses should not be forced to wait even longer for justice.”
The ELA, which heard from 387 of its members, revealed that 75% of survey respondents said that replies to written correspondence and applications take longer than they did a year ago. Over 77% of respondents said that final hearings were being listed over a year after the issue of a claim and more than 66% of respondents experienced an increase in the time tribunals are taking to deal with the service of claims. Tribunals in London, Watford, Reading and Cardiff are particularly badly hit, according to the ELA.
All of these delays inevitably lead to increased costs for clients. Solicitors interviewed for the ELA survey said it was embarrassing to explain these delays to clients and leads to a loss of confidence in the rule of law. What is the point of having employment rights if they cannot be effectively enforced?
An HM Courts & Tribunals Service spokesperson said: ‘The employment tribunal has seen a significant increase in claims since August 2017. We have recently recruited 58 more salaried tribunal judges in England and Wales to tackle the increase in cases and we have been working with the judiciary to increase capacity and performance in the tribunal.’