The employment tribunal is the court of law where many cases relating to employment law and employment matters are heard. If you have a dispute at work, or feel that a grievance you have raised has not been dealt with properly, then you may find yourself taking your case to an employment tribunal.
Employment tribunals are very much a last resort in employment law, although that doesn’t necessarily mean you must exhaust all other avenues before approaching the employment tribunal.
Although in most cases trying to sort out a workplace grievance or problem with an employer is best done informally, or through mediation, in some circumstances you may feel a grievance is so serious or unlikely to be resolved that going to the employment tribunal early on is the most appropriate action.
How does an employment tribunal hearing work?
Although it is not essential to have legal representation at an employment tribunal hearing, the reality is that many cases will involve lawyers. If you have instructed a solicitor or barrister then they will prepare your case on your behalf.
If you have not instructed a lawyer then you will usually represent yourself. This is not unusual, and the employment tribunal is designed so that employees can stand up and state their case without the need for legal help, if they wish to do so.
The cases are heard in tribunal rooms, usually in a suite of offices. Cases are heard by a panel of three tribunal members, one of them will be a sitting judge and the others representatives from employers’ and employees’ organisations. Occasionally cases are heard by a single sitting judge.
The hearing will run very much like a court case, and you are expected to address the panel as Sir or Madam. Despite this, employment tribunal hearings are less formal than those which take place in traditional courts.
Who goes first?
The judge will decide who is allowed to present their case first. In unfair dismissal the employer will usually go first. In discrimination cases, the employee usually goes first. Regardless of who goes first, both sides have the chance to speak.
Whoever goes first reads their witness statement; this is a sworn statement to the court presenting one side of the story. After making the statement, the opposing side’s lawyer or representative has the chance to question the first witness, in a process known as ‘cross examination’. At the end of this your own representative, if you have one, can ask you final questions to clarify any points, in a process known as ‘re-examination’.
Once you have presented your case and witnesses, the opposition will do the same, and you will have the same opportunity to cross examine. If you do not have a lawyer, you will need to cross examine yourself, by asking questions of the witnesses to clarify points that are unclear and try to produce from them evidence that supports your case.
What happens next?
At the end of the hearing both sides can make closing submissions. This is your chance to sum up your arguments, restate points in the hearing that were in your favour and minimise points made against you. You should aim to make an impression on the judge and panel that your case is the strongest and that you should win.
After the case has been presented, the panel will deliberate. Sometimes they are able to make a quick decision and deliver the verdict on the day, on other occasions they may ask for more time and will send the verdict in the post.
If the decision is in your favour, then your employer may have a right of appeal, and similarly if the decision goes against you, you may wish to investigate an appeal. Appeals can only be made on a ‘point of law’. This means that you believe the law was misinterpreted in your case. You cannot appeal simply because you disagree with the decision.