By Claire West
As the government prepares to launch a major review of employment tribunals, the TUC has recently warned that any major changes to the system could stop employees who have been wronged at work from seeking justice, and give the green light to rogue employers to break the law.
In recent weeks, employer groups have been lobbying hard for ministers to change the tribunal system, but the TUC says that rather than complaining about the cost of cases and supposedly vexatious claims, employers should be working harder at treating their staff well, improving their employment practices, and ensuring they stay within the law.
The TUC is concerned, for example, that employer calls for an increase in the qualifying period in which workers can claim unfair dismissal from one to two years would prevent thousands of wronged employees from challenging their employers, and allow companies to sack staff at whim.
Similarly, says the TUC, making people pay a fee of up to £500 before they can go to a tribunal would deter many employees with genuine cases, especially low paid individuals who have just lost their jobs and no longer have a salary to rely upon.
Commenting on the forthcoming consultation, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'At the heart of any change to the tribunal system has to be the desire to make it more effective at delivering justice to the thousands of people who every year are wronged at work.
'While employer groups complain that tribunals are costing them too much, they seem to have lost sight of the fact that if firms treated their staff as they are meant to, few would ever find themselves taken to court.
'Instead of a focus on the employment tribunal process, ministers' time would be better spent looking at why so many companies, especially small employers, have such poor employment practices.
'When things go wrong at work, it's better for everyone concerned that the problem is resolved within the workplace, which is why mediation and the assistance provided by unions and ACAS is so invaluable. It's no accident that employers who work with unions are much less likely to find themselves in front of a tribunal than firms where there are no unions.
'The government should stand firm in the face of the intense employer lobbying seen in recent weeks and leave employment tribunals to continue holding rogue employers to account and delivering justice for all workers who have been discriminated against or treated unfairly.'
The TUC says that a number of the claims being put forward by employer groups are misleading:
•Employers say the numbers of claims are increasing, but the vast majority of the 236,000 cases taken last year were multiple claims covering large groups of workers, often in disputes over working time or equal pay. The number of claims made by individual employees is still low. (In 2009/10, there was a 90 per cent increase in multiple claims, single claims were up just 14 per cent on the previous year.)
•Employment tribunals already have the power to require deposits from individuals taking cases, and judges regularly issue costs orders and strike out claims they see as 'vexatious or misconceived'. The tribunal system is based on the principle that employees should not be deterred from bringing cases through fear of large costs should they lose.
•It is a myth that workers use the employment tribunal system in a vexatious manner. It is widely recognised that bringing a tribunal claim can be a highly stressful and time-consuming experience, and as a result many individuals decide not to enforce their rights and take their employers to court.
•Raising the qualifying period for workers who believe they have been unfairly dismissed would deter many genuinely wronged individuals from seeking justice. In such cases it can be vital for employees to be able to clear their name, especially where they have been dismissed for alleged capability or conduct reasons on often flimsy grounds. Having such a reason stated for dismissal can seriously impair the person's ability to find future work, can reduce their earning potential, and irreparably damage their careers.