The Government has published its response to the consultation on reforming the Employment Tribunal (ET) system and has set out how it intends to proceed with its proposed reforms.
Key areas of reform include:
1. Digitisation of the ET claims process
This is intended to make the system more cost effective, simple and accessible, with the Government's aim being that eventually a claimant shall be able to digitally commence a claim, track progress, provide evidence and information, and participate in resolution methods if they wish to do so. This is likely to mean that, where appropriate, some hearings will take place 'virtually', via telephone, online and video conference rather than in physical tribunal rooms.
Whereas currently once a claim has been filed much of the subsequent processing and case management of claims is done on paper, this will in future be done electronically. However, in order to ensure that this system will not exclude those without ready internet access or with little familiarity with conducting affairs online, online processes will not be made mandatory.
2. Delegating judicial functions to caseworkers
These reforms envisage that case management decisions, for example in relation to applications for a stay of proceedings or ordering evidence to be adduced, will be delegated to a caseworker, rather than being dealt with by a judge. The Government proposes that caseworkers will be suitably legally qualified or trained staff and all decisions shall be made under judicial supervision or scrutiny to ensure that quality standards are maintained. Furthermore, new procedural rules would provide the added safeguard that any parties who are unhappy with decisions made by a tribunal caseworker would be able to have the decision considered afresh by a judge.
3. Tailoring tribunal panels according to the needs of the case
At present, more substantial cases (such as those involving discrimination and whistleblowing claims) will be heard by a panel consisting of a lawyer chair and two other lay members who are able to provide knowledge and experience of the workplace that is not necessarily available to the judge. Under the new proposals, this will no longer be the status quo and instead, the Senior President of Tribunals is to have the power to determine panel composition in the ET and Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). This is to enable a more proportionate use of the expertise of non-legal panel members, limiting their involvement to industry specific cases, or those that involve discrimination. This is intended to bring this practice in line with the rest of the justice system.
The government's response to this consultation makes clear that the employment jurisdiction will not be left untouched by the programme of reform currently underway in the justice system. These changes are scheduled to take place in the latter stages of the reform process and will be subject to further consultation before they are fully implemented. The Government has not provided a firm timescale for the reforms but has indicated that the changes will be implemented "as soon as Parliamentary time allows".