News over the week-end about Vince Cable’s disquiet over the impact of tribunal fees was followed yesterday by the publication of a report by the Civil Justice Council which proposes a radical new way of dealing with low value civil claims. We believe that although the timing is coincidental, there could be more than a tenuous connection between these two stories.
The report suggests the creation of a new online portal under the umbrella of the Courts Service which would offer a radical new approach to resolving disputes where less than £25,000 is in issue. This would include on-line evaluation and a facilitated dispute resolution service to help parties resolve the dispute. The final tier would consist of on-line adjudication, where judges would decide the case, mostly based on information filed electronically.
The terms of reference for the report do not extend to disputes currently handled by the tribunal system, but its authors recommend that the new online portal should also be extended to “to suitable family disputes and to appropriate cases that come before today’s tribunals”. That looks like a reference to employment tribunals. As it happens, their jurisdiction to hear contractual disputes is in effect limited to those worth no more than £25,000. They also have exclusive jurisdiction over what are mostly fairly small claims under the unlawful deduction from wages regime.
It is therefore probable that this latest report will provide material for the debate launched last year by the Law Society about the future of our employment tribunals. Vince Cable is currently pressing for the publication of a report into the impact of tribunal fees, but it is becoming clear that there are more options on the table than a full or partial return to the status quo. A future Government is going to have some interesting decisions to make, not just in relation to employment tribunals, but in relation to the administration of civil justice generally. Employers have a considerable interest in the outcome of this debate, and now would be a good time to make their voices heard.