Worker tribunal is no pushover

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THE Government is considering making it harder to take cases of alleged unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal.

One option is to require applicants to lodge deposits with the tribunal.

Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, is reportedly unhappy at a 'gravy train' of large compensation going to sacked workers. He is also concerned by the long delays before some cases are heard. But those who have unsuccessfully gone through the process warn it can already be costly as well as lengthy.

Ross Willmott was Birmingham area manager for the charity Action Resource Centre (ARC) when he was sacked for alleged gross misconduct. The charity said that Mr Willmott had exceeded his authority in negotiating for new sources of income.

Mr Willmott, a Labour councillor, claimed his employers had been fully informed, and that the sacking arose from personal conflicts between himself and his boss. He took his case to an industrial tribunal, claiming compensation of two years' salary for loss of earnings.

The tribunal found in favour of ARC in June this year, after the case had crawled through the system for nearly two years.

ARC, which was represented by a barrister, claimed costs on the grounds that the case against it had no merit, and that the behaviour of Mr Willmott and MSF, his union, acting on his behalf, had unduly lengthened the hearing. But the tribunal ruled that each side should pay its own costs - in Mr Willmott's case, pounds 2,800.

It is normal practice for unions not to seek any payment from members it represents at a tribunal. The exception to this is the GMB, which takes 10 per cent of successful awards as a contribution towards its expenses.

Legal aid is not available for industrial tribunal cases, because tribunals were set up as a 'people's court', not requiring professional lawyers. However, solicitors and barristers are commonly used by employers, while applicants are often represented by their unions, who tend to use their own full-time officers to present cases.

Mr Willmott's case is a warning to any who believe that industrial tribunals are an easy way of gaining a lot of money. His application to tribunal was lodged two months after his dismissal in June 1992. The first hearing, eight months later, was adjourned after half a day. On two subsequent occasions dates were set to reconvene, but cancelled.

A three-day hearing eventually took place in October last year, but time ran out before all the evidence was heard. Evidence was completed in February this year, but the tribunal was unable to reach a decision until June - after six hearings had been set, and two years after Mr Willmott's dismissal.

If he went through it again, Mr Willmott says: 'I would have to insist we had a lawyer. It was not conducted for a lay person to handle. And you should be aware that you can get costs awarded against you, which shouldn't need saying. The cost in terms of loss of income, attendance and emotion is vast.'