Employment claims backlog is 'just the start'
By Nicola Laver
Claimants in the employment tribunal are now facing up to 46 weeks for their hearings during lockdown, it has been revealed.
The increasing delay emerged as HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) published figures showing the number of outstanding employment tribunal claims soared to 51,614 by 11 March 2021
This represents a 45 per cent increase on the pre-covid-19 baseline figure of 35,653. The volume is set to increase yet further with the furlough scheme ending on 30 April, with fears of a looming spike in redundancies.
HMCTS figures also confirm that the number of employment claims accepted in quarter 4 last year (October to December) was up 37 per cent on quarter two and 66 per cent on the first quarter.
The average wait time for claimants before their hearing has gone up five weeks, from 41 weeks, since before the pandemic, London employment specialist firm GQ|Littler found, following a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice.
The firm expects the delays to get worse, with an increasing number of covid-19 related employment disputes, triggered not just by redundancies but also cost-cutting and health and safety issues.
GQ|Littler partner Raoul Parekh said: “Covid has taken its toll on the tribunals, who were already facing significant operating difficulties long before the pandemic. The crisis is a perfect storm of reduced capacity in the tribunal system – with some venues closed for covid-related reasons for weeks on end – and increased volume of claims.”
“These delays mean some claims will have to wait until 2022 before they are heard in court. This places a huge burden on employees and businesses during this already disrupted time.”
Parekh warned: “Unfortunately, this is just the start. A wave of redundancy claims is expected following the end of furlough, so the backlog will only get worse.”
He acknowledged the additional support being given to tribunals, including the recruitment of new judges and the extension of the consultation period between employers and employees to increase the chance of reaching an agreement.
“But without more resources”, he warned, “the problem is not going to get better, with employers and employees paying the price.”
Responding to the latest figures, Chris Millward, head of claims at ARAG, said it is clear tribunal system lacks capacity to cope. He said: “The steps government proposed to address the backlog last year, increasing use of virtual hearings and trying to deploy underutilised and non-specialist judges, clearly haven’t worked.”
He said “stronger action is urgently needed” to bring the backlog under control. “The situation is intolerable for businesses facing a claim and for those employees who may have been unfairly treated, as it is clear many will have to wait significant periods of time, potentially years, before getting any sort of resolution to their dispute.”
The Law Society also expressed concern. President David Greene said: “It is truly worrying to see a backlog of more than 51,000 employment tribunal claims, reflecting backlogs in other courts.
“Since employment tribunal fees were abolished in 2017, the number of claims has increased substantially, without the same increase in the resources needed to be able to deliver justice promptly.”
He said the Society will “continue to encourage the government to improve the running of employment tribunals and make sure they are properly resourced in order to tackle the expanding backlog of cases”.
“Lengthy waiting times for cases to be heard will also lead to delays in the emergence of the case law needed as employers and employees face up to a post-covid-19 pandemic working environment,” added Greene.