Like most organisations, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service experienced a dramatic change in the way they work as a result of the pandemic. Whilst some of those changes were temporary and have reversed with the easing of restrictions, some will be permanent, including hybrid and more flexible ways of working. With some dramatic and previously unimaginable changes to the way in which hearings were handled, earlier this month the Presidents of the Employment Tribunals issued a new road map of how they expect some of the positive changes to stay for good as, well as other expectations for the coming year.
We summarise some of these key changes and the likely effects on employers who are defending claims in the employment tribunal.
1. Remote hearings are here to stay. For almost all preliminary hearings, including case management and applications for strike out, these will continue to default to telephone or video hearing. This is likely to be a permanent change. For the most straightforward claims, such as unpaid wages or notice, these will also continue to default to video.
A potential saving for employers on this front: less cost if their lawyer can attend remotely rather than incurring the time & cost of travel costs to and from the tribunal centre. It can also be less intimidating for an employer’s witnesses to attend hearings via video, avoiding the formality of a tribunal hearing room.
However, the Presidents have expressed a view that most litigants feel the best sense of justice by attending hearings in person. They are therefore aiming to have as many final hearings for all but the most straightforward claims to be held in person. For now, though, long delays continue to be the norm, due to a shortage of judges, as well as insufficient hearing rooms and tribunal staff. In the worst-hit regions, such as parts of London and the North West, hearings longer than 3 days are not being listed until the second half of 2023.
2. A “virtual region” has been created. Around 300 judges have been allocated to this. This is a floating group of employment judges across England and Wales who make use of the video hearing platform to hear cases generated by any region. We can only hope that this will help to reduce the backlog of cases.
3. Wider reform will include the creation of a new “MyHMCTS” portal, meaning parties can access information about the case much more readily and allow for automated updates. The current shortage of administrative staff and the backlog of cases has significantly slowed down communications with the tribunals and it is hoped that the proposed changes will ease matters.
A new automatic listing process is also proposed, with the aim that cases should be listed faster.
On behalf of employers defending claims who have suffered increased costs and delays over the last few years at the hands of an overwhelmed tribunal system, we cautiously welcome these changes.