Tribunals continue to enjoy full employment

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Unemployment rose another 47,400 in August. It now stands at 2.81 million, the highest level for five years.

But business is booming for the industrial tribunals. Promised legislation and continued economic uncertainty offer tribunal members a secure future.

In 1990/91, industrial tribunal applications increased by 12.3 per cent. They also hear sex and race discrimination cases but the bulk of applications are claims for unfair dismissal - in 1990/91 there were 19,554.

Full-time employees (those working 16 or more hours a week) of at least two years' standing enjoy statutory protection against sacking. Claims for unfair dismissal must be made to the tribunal within three months and late applications are usually barred.

Critics say that the tribunals' power to make awards for compensation has not kept in line with wage and price inflation. This is not the only gripe. The tribunals, established in the early Seventies, were supposed to be fairly informal affairs at which both sides could put their case without the need for legal representation.

However, Richard Monkcom, partner in a City law firm, Druces & Attlee, points out: 'The reality is that today many employers are legally represented at hearings. An employee who could not afford legal advice may be seriously at a disadvantage.'

Unrepresented workers could face real drawbacks in the hearings, which have become increasingly complex and legalistic.

Of all applications made in 1990/91, over 65 per cent did not proceed to a hearing.

The overall success rate for registered unfair dismissal applications was steady at just under 13 per cent, although the chance of success for those cases which went as far as a tribunal was 94 per cent.

According to Mr Monkcom, these statistics alone should not deter those applying for unfair dismissal: 'Often, even if an employee's claim is at best tenuous, there may still be some tactical advantage to be extracted from submitting an application. From an employer's point of view, dealing with applications often eats up valuable management time. In addition, the employer's legal fees can on occasion rise disproportionately in comparison to the employee's potential claim.'

Often it makes commercial sense to settle an employee's claim even if there is limited legal merit in it.

However, sometimes employers fight applications as a matter of principle to demonstrate that employees are ill-advised in bringing spurious claims. Only in exceptional circumstances will a tribunal award costs.

The statutory award for unfair dismissal is made up of two parts. First, there is the basic award which entitles the employee to between pounds 102.50 and pounds 307.50 for each complete year of service, to a limit of 20 years. The precise amount awarded depends on the employee's age and length of service.

The second tier of the award, the compensatory element, is limited to pounds 10,000, the actual amount depending on what the tribunal thinks is 'just and equitable'. Factors taken into account include the likelihood of the employee finding another job and the manner of his or her dismissal.

In some circumstances the tribunal has the power to award the re-engagement or reinstatement of an employee. If the employer defies such an order, additional compensation may be awarded.

The size of awards has not kept pace with inflation. A recent statement from the Law Society Employment Law Committee called for a significant increase in the amounts industrial tribunals can award.

However, statistics show that in 1990/91 the average compensation level for unfair dismissal was pounds 1,773, far below the maximum limits.

Since 1989 the Government has promised to simplify employment law procedures and to extend the jurisdiction of tribunals to enable them to hear claims for breach of contract.

Despite the delays, the tribunals are likely to be fully employed for some time to come.