Long waiting times are nothing new to the justice system in the UK, with the Coronavirus pandemic only exacerbating the problem. The Employment Tribunals are no exception, and according to the latest Ministry of Justice statistics there are some 37,000 outstanding cases, surpassing the previous peak of 36,000 in 2010, with hearings already being listed deep into 2022.
Consequently, this month has seen the introduction of new regulations aimed at tackling the growing backlog of cases. Most of the changes from the regulations came into effect on 9 October 2020, and allow for short-track cases to be listed more quickly.
Following the changes, the date of final hearing in a short-track case can now be given before the employer’s response to a claim is submitted, so long as it is no sooner than 14 days following the deadline for the employer to submit its formal response (ET3 form).
This will mean that instead of very simple cases being listed months down the line they can now be listed just weeks down the line, which in turn means that if parties wish to settle they will need to begin negotiations promptly. Settlement negotiations are also to be assisted by the increase of the standard Acas early conciliation period from one month to six weeks, a change that will come into effect from 1 December 2020.
The regulations also aim to increase flexibility for hearings as an attempt to increase the capacity of the tribunals. Presidential Guidance has already come into effect allowing judges to choose whether to conduct hearings remotely, in-person or a mixture of the two.
The regulations also allow for some of the background work to cases to be undertaken by ‘legal officers’ (who are not legally qualified) when it previously would have been carried out by Judges. Those tasks include:
- considering acceptance or rejection of claim forms;
- extending time for an ET3 to be submitted or for compliance with case management orders; and
- ordering further information to be provided.
The changes of course give rise to some challenges, especially in relation to ensuring that all parties are still treated fairly, an issue called into question across the justice system as more hearings are heard remotely as a result of the pandemic. However in general these changes are welcome, and will hopefully help in decreasing the number of cases awaiting a final hearing.