A return to face-to-face hearings would be insufficient to tackle the backlog of UK employment tribunal claims, leading judges have warned, indicating virtual hearings will continue even in the post-covid-19 world.
Judge Barry Clarke and Judge Shona Simon, presidents of the employment tribunals in England and Wales and Scotland respectively, published a joint road map to recovery for the tribunal systems as coronavirus restrictions are eased around the UK.
There are more than 51,000 outstanding claims before the tribunals, a 45% rise on pre-covid-19 figures, according to recently released Ministry of Justice statistics.
As of February, the disposal of single claims takes 48 weeks, 12 weeks longer than in the same period before the pandemic, while the disposal of multiple claims has risen from 149 weeks to 229 weeks.
A mechanism that “assists in reducing the outstanding caseload”, judges Clarke and Simon said video hearings would remain an “essential part” of tribunals’ toolkit beyond the pandemic “for at least two years”.
If we are to build on what we have learned over the last year, the better approach is to recognise that a mixture of platforms
In their roadmap, the presidents acknowledged that opinion on continuing remote hearings was split among employment practitioners; while some were eager for hearings to return to a physical building, others have “found much to value in a working life that involves reduced travel”.
“We do not think the solution is found in exclusively adopting one method over another,” said judges Clarke and Simon. “If we are to build on what we have learned over the last year, the better approach is to recognise that a mixture of platforms (remote, hybrid, and in-person) will subsist.”
The roadmap for the next 12 months expects disputes involving unfair dismissal, discrimination, and whistleblowing claims to return in greater numbers to in-person final hearings, where the regional backlog allows for them to, while all other hearings will continue to be heard by telephone or video.
The presidents also revealed the launch of a “virtual region” populated by 100 existing fee-paid employment judges who will hear cases from any region in England and Wales. It is expected these judges will initially concentrate on claims in London and the South East where more than half of the UK’s outstanding tribunal claims are located.
“It is encouraging to see the road map to recovery in the employment tribunals given the truly worrying backlog of more than 51,000 claims,” said Law Society President I. Stephanie Boyce, who also highlighted that since tribunal fees were abolished in 2017, the number of employment claims has risen without an increase in the resources needed to deliver justice promptly.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the backlog of claims and these are only likely to increase due to the economic fallout caused by covid-19 and resultant employment issues,” Boyce added.
“Lengthy waiting times for cases to be heard will also lead to delays in the emergence of the case law needed as employers and employees face up to a post-covid-19 pandemic working environment.”