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Cable relies on Acas and fees to cut employment tribunal claims

1 February 2011

Business secretary Vince Cable has launched plans to cut the number of employment tribunal claims by requiring them to be lodged with Acas in the hope of achieving early settlements.

Under the proposals Acas would have a duty, rather than a power, to provide pre-claim conciliation. Employment judges would be allowed to sit alone and ‘legal officers’ employed to help them with case management.

Measures outlined by Cable and already leaked to the press include an increase in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims from one year to two and introducing fees for tribunal hearings (see solicitorsjournal.com, 10 January 2011).

James Davies, joint head of employment at Lewis Silkin, said the idea of sending all claims to Acas made sense, but would be “bonkers” without proper funding.

“How are they going to be able to do it without more resources?” he asked. “Acas is already overstretched. You have to fund it properly, otherwise claims will disappear into a black hole.”

Davies said he was not against employment judges being allowed to sit alone, as long as it did not result in a “gradual erosion in the use of lay individuals until they disappear into the ether”. He said the “big question” was over the introduction of fees and how much they would be.

Martin Warren, head of the HR practice group at Eversheds, said many employers were looking for the introduction of fees to act as a deterrent to ‘have a go’ claimants, but the government had postponed the issue for a further consultation later in the year.

“Of greater concern is the government’s proposal to introduce fines for employers found to have breached employment rights in a tribunal, in addition to compensation paid to the successful claimant,” he said.

Paul McGowan, principal of Collingwood Legal in Corbridge, Northumberland, said that whether or not Acas had a power or a duty to be involved, it was up to the parties to find a resolution of the case.

“Many changes to employment law in the last 15 years have come from Europe and the UK government is obliged to reflect them.”

Solicitors’ network Contact Law said it handled more than 20,000 enquiries relating to employment law last year and 20 per cent of them related to potential unfair dismissals of workers who had been with their employer for less than two years.

Dan Watkins, director of Contact Law, said: “On the surface, increasing the (unfair dismissal) qualifying period may well give employers the much-needed confidence and protection to recruit staff without fear of facing lengthy and expensive unfair dismissal cases in the first two years.

“However, the flip-side is that these reforms may also give more unscrupulous employers license to ride roughshod over their employees, which in the longer term will reduce productivity and damage morale within the workplace.”

Launching the consultation last week, the business secretary said tribunal claims rose to 256,000 last year, an increase of 56 per cent on 2009.

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