Professionals warn that a “perfect storm” is brewing within the employment tribunal system due to rising demand as a result of COVID-19 and restricted capacity.

New warnings from Citizens Advice, a charity who gives free advice linked to money, consumer and legal problems, show that the backlog of tribunal claims could hit half a million by spring time in 2021.

Analysis has revealed that the backlog for individual cases has already surpassed the backlog that was present during the 2008-09 financial recession.

In addition to this, the average waiting time for single claims related to discrimination and unfair dismissal has reached 38 weeks. This means, hypothetically, if a person was to put in a claim in October, their claim may get addressed by July 2021 – although wait times can be much longer than the average timeframe.

In fact, statistics from Citizens Advice show that three in 10 unfair dismissal cases (30 per cent of all cases) are being withdrawn due to the excessive wait time.

Even prior to the pandemic, there were 440,000 existing outstanding claims from both individual and groups of employees. This year alone has seen the highest rate of single employment tribunal claims since 2012/2013.

In accordance with this rise in employment tribunal claims in 2020, during April and June 2020,  the number of cases being resolved (by decision, settlement, withdrawal or dismissal) has hit an 11-year low. Figures show that the amount of cases being resolved has dropped by over half (56 per cent).

Citizens Advice have stated that groups such as disabled people, people asked to shield and parents and carers were twice as likely to be facing redundancy in comparison to other groups. The charity have stated that for many workers that were facing redundancies linked to COVID-19, “employment tribunals will offer the only route to protecting their rights”.

Christine Trueman, an employment adviser at Citizens Advice Taunton, said:

By the time someone decides to pursue a tribunal they’re often already under a huge amount of stress. Then I have to warn them that the earliest they’re likely to get a date is this time next year. If it’s a complex case regarding discrimination, we’re probably talking about 2022.

The waiting and the complexity can grind people down until they’re so scared and exhausted they withdraw their case. In my 12 years as an adviser, I could count the number of meritless claims on one hand.

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

Employment tribunals ensure workers’ rights are protected in some of the most serious cases, but right now they are facing the perfect storm of rising demand at a time of restricted capacity.

We know that disabled people, those asked to shield, and parents and carers are at greater risk of redundancy. But if they want to challenge an unfair dismissal or discrimination they already face waiting nine months for their case to be heard, and the pandemic is only going to increase this.

Workers who have been treated unfairly need to know employers that break the rules will no longer have lengthy waiting times on their side. Employment tribunals need more emergency funding, and ultimately workers need a one-stop shop to protect their employment rights.

Susan Kelly, Partner at Winckworth Sherwood, a law firm, said:

Despite the recruitment of more employment judges and huge efforts by their administrative staff, the Tribunal system has been struggling to cope with its increased workload ever since the Supreme Court forced the Government to stop employment tribunals charging users fees in 2017.

COVID-19 was the last straw, and in some places, we have seen claims where even the initial response from the Tribunal was not received for many months.

 

The Government have given £80 million to the Courts and Tribunal Services to aid the court systems in adapting in light of the pandemic. However, Citizens Advice have urged the Government to provide “extra emergency funding” to increase capacity further and ensure the backlog is cleared.

It is also calling on the Government to fast-track plans for a single enforcement body for employment rights which would ease pressure on the tribunal system.