Employment lawyers are familiar with the style and set-up of employment tribunals, but for those visiting the employment tribunal for the first time, they are sometimes surprised by its informal style and appearance. But, looks can be deceiving and employers and witnesses should not underestimate the importance of the tribunal process simply because of the way the tribunal looks.
First-time witnesses often expect high profile hearings to be held in grand court rooms with wooden panelling and lawyers wearing wigs and gowns. But most employment tribunals are based in shared office buildings in or around town or city centres, part of business parks or even above busy shopping centres. In fact, most tribunals look more like a scene from The Office than a Kavanagh QC style courtroom drama.
Tribunals are also less formal than other courts, but the informality in style and appearance is deliberate and is not to be misjudged or underestimated.
The tribunal system is designed to encourage collaboration between the parties and was set up to provide an informal and inexpensive forum to resolve employment disputes. Parties can represent themselves or be represented by solicitors, barristers, QCs, trade unions or even friends. The system is designed so that a litigant in person, who may be unexpectedly unemployed, can present his or her claim without the formality or costs that you often find in the civil and criminal courts.
But tribunals are also public forums, where members of the press or the general public can attend, listen to evidence and review documents, pleadings and witness statements. As a result, employment tribunals often deal with complex and high-profile claims that regularly make the news, particularly around discrimination, harassment and whistleblowing. Employment tribunals also hear cases that can make or break business models, such as cases looking at worker status in the gig-economy.
Now that employment tribunal fees have been abolished, employers might find themselves defending claims before the employment tribunal more regularly (since the abolishment of tribunal fees, the tribunals have seen a 118% rise in the number of single employment tribunal claims coming through). With that in mind, whilst a tribunal hearing will never look like an exciting courtroom drama and may not demand the same respect and instil intimidation like the civil and criminal courts, the tribunal process is not to be underestimated by employers and first-time witnesses based on its style and appearance.