Law guide: Workplace

See how we helped Liz

"It's not just a website... there are people there on call who can help answer your queries."

Liz W, London

Employment tribunals

Employment tribunals

An Employment Tribunal deals with legal disputes to do with work - if you make a claim, there are procedures that need to be followed and you should understand what happens when your claim is heard.

What is an Employment Tribunal?

ETs hear cases involving employment disputes. They're less formal than some other courts, but you give evidence on oath, and if you lie you can be convicted of perjury.

The majority of cases are usually heard by a panel of three people – a legally qualified employment judge, and two 'lay members'. The lay members use their employment experience in judging the facts. However, for certain claims, such as for unfair dismissal, the employment judge sits on their own.

Do you need to go to an Employment Tribunal?

It's always best to try to sort out problems through discussion, and before you go to a tribunal, you should get specialist advice, particularly about your chance of success. You must:

  • Follow your employer's grievance and disciplinary procedures (in most cases, a tribunal won't hear your claim unless you've tried putting in a grievance first)
  • Check that your claim can be heard by the tribunal
  • Make sure you are within the time limits

Starting the process

Acas Early Conciliation

Before starting a claim in an Employment Tribunal, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) will offer you the use of their 'Early Conciliation' service. This is a free dispute resolution service that helps resolve workplace disputes. If you want to start an ET claim, you must first send Acas certain 'prescribed information' about your dispute. You can use a form to do this, which is available from Acas.

Acas will then contact you to confirm whether you want to use the scheme to try to resolve the dispute. If so, Acas will have 6 weeks to try to resolve it. In the meantime, the time limits for starting an Employment Tribunal claim (see below) will be 'frozen'.

If a settlement cannot be reached, Acas will give you an Early Conciliation certificate.

This certificate will show that Acas believes a settlement will not be possible. Acas will also give you this certificate if either you or your employer refuses Early Conciliation, or if either of you cannot be contacted.

You will need this certificate in order to start a claim at an Employment Tribunal.

When to use the Early Conciliation scheme

Acas will offer the Early Conciliation scheme for most types of claims, such as those involving unfair dismissal, discrimination, redundancy payments, deduction of wages and unpaid holiday pay.

The scheme will not apply to a small number of claims, such as where there is little time left to make a claim, making it impractical. Further, the scheme will not apply if you have already referred the dispute to Acas, or if the dispute involves multiple claims.

Your employer can also request Early Conciliation. They will need to contact Acas and give your details using a request form from the Acas website.

If they do this then the time limit for making a claim will not be frozen and there will be no time limit for Early Conciliation to end.

See the Acas website for more information on the scheme.

The required form

You must first complete a form ET1, which you can get from:

  • Jobcentre Plus
  • Acas
  • Your local Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB)
  • An employment tribunal office
  • The employment tribunal service's website

You should seek legal advice, such as from a CAB, when you complete the form.

Use the form to give information about yourself, your employer and your complaint, and confirm that you've followed your employer's grievance procedures when necessary. If you're complaining of unfair dismissal, you don't have to have used the grievance procedures, but your employer should have used the disciplinary procedures.

Send the form to the Employment Tribunal's central office. They'll send a copy to your employer, who has to respond within 28 days.

Time limits

Most applications must be made within 3 months of the incident, but this can vary. Tribunals will only extend the time limit in exceptional circumstances.

Will your claim go ahead?

Once an Employment Tribunal receives the claim and response, an employment judge will initially review them. The judge will then decide whether the claim or response (or any part of them) should be 'struck out', or deleted, so that the affected party cannot rely on it. The judge will do so if a claim or response is unlikely to succeed, or if it falls outside the tribunal's jurisdiction.

If the employment judge decides that the case should continue, the tribunal will send the parties instructions for preparing the case for a trial (case management directions).

The tribunal can then decide that your claim is not likely to succeed and order a hearing to look at the issues. If they think you are unlikely to succeed, they can make you pay a deposit, which you won't get back if you lose.

If the case proceeds, 'case management discussions' can be held to clarify any issues. The tribunal can also ask for further information from you or your employer if they're unclear about the claim.

Settling the issue before a hearing

Try to settle your claim before going to the Employment Tribunal because you're not guaranteed of winning. You can usually withdraw your complaint at any time before the hearing. Acas will offer free and impartial conciliation to you and your employer.

The tribunal hearing

The tribunal will inform you of the date of your hearing.

You don't have to appear in person, but you must tell the tribunal if you want the case to be heard in your absence.

When preparing for the hearing, ensure that you have all the documentation that you intend to use. It usually helps to consider things in date order to provide a sequence of events. If you're going to use any documents, you'll need to tell the other side, giving them at least 7 days' notice before the hearing.

At the hearing you (or your representatives) and your employer put your cases to the panel and answer questions. The panel or employment judge then comes to a decision.

You can take witnesses to the hearing who can give evidence to support your case. If any witnesses you would like to be there refuse to go, you can ask the tribunal to order their attendance.

You can represent yourself, and the panel will try to make things clear for you. The procedures are quite informal. There's no legal aid, but if you're a member of a trade union, they may pay for a solicitor.

Awards & Costs

Some household insurers pay reasonable legal costs - check your policy documents.

Unlike other courts, tribunals don't usually order either side to pay costs, except in exceptional circumstances.

If you represent yourself in a tribunal then you can claim from your employer a fixed hourly rate for the time it took to prepare. You can also claim the costs incurred for paying any witnesses' expenses. However, you must apply for such an order before you can claim these costs.

If you win

The tribunal can order your employer to pay you compensation. There is no limit to the amount of compensation paid in discrimination claims, or in dismissal claims based on health and safety grounds.

The tribunal can order your employer to pay compensation, which is unlimited for discrimination or dismissal related to six specified grounds related to health and safety.

For unfair dismissal claims, the award is made up of:

  • The basic award. This is generally calculated in the same way as a redundancy payment, by applying the formula based on age factor, length of service and one week's pay. You can get an idea of the likely award in your situation by using the redundancy payments calculator on GOV.UK.
  • A compensatory award, which is limited to a maximum amount. For some people this maximum is somewhere between £90,000 and £100,000 (the figure usually changes every year). However, for most people it's less than this as it can't be more than a year's gross pay. Pension contributions, benefits-in-kind and discretionary bonuses aren't included when calculating a year's gross pay. A tribunal can increase the compensatory award by up to 25% if your employer doesn't follow the Acas code of practice for disciplinary and grievance procedures. Note that not all unfair dismissal claims are subject to this limit, such as whistleblowing claims.

Both awards can be reduced in certain circumstances, for example if you were partly at fault.

Compensation is intended to replace lost earnings - there's no payment for hurt feelings (apart from in discrimination cases). You have to try to reduce your loss (e.g. by getting another job or claiming benefit).

The tribunal can order your employer to give you your job back if you win a dismissal case, if you want it.

Financial penalties

Any tribunal claims made could result in your employer paying a financial penalty. Before imposing the penalty, the tribunal must decide if there have been any 'aggravating features', e.g. if your employer fails to cooperate with you or the tribunal.

Even if you have not been awarded any compensation, the court can still order a financial penalty against your employer. If you have been awarded compensation, the financial penalty must be 50% of the award. This will also be the case if there are a number of individual claims made against your employer that you make alone or with other employees.

However, the tribunal must first consider whether your employer will be able to pay the penalty before ordering it.

If you lose

If you are unsuccessful, then in exceptional circumstances a tribunal may order you to pay costs if it considers that you have acted abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably.

Tribunals can make cost orders of up to £20,000. Therefore, you should be certain that you have a valid claim before starting one in a tribunal, otherwise you could risk paying the penalty.

You can ask the tribunal to review its decision, although the grounds are limited.

It's also possible to appeal to the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT), which only looks at points of law (so you can't appeal if you think the Employment Tribunal just got the facts wrong).

Copyright © 2024 Epoq Group Ltd. All trademarks acknowledged, all rights reserved

This website is operated by Epoq Legal Ltd, registered in England and Wales, company number 3707955, whose registered office is at 2 Imperial Place, Maxwell Road, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, WD6 1JN. Epoq Legal Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA number 645296).

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We would also like to set some optional cookies. We won't set these optional cookies unless you enable them. Please choose whether this site may use optional cookies by selecting 'On' or 'Off' for each category below. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Cookie notice.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Functionality cookies

We'd like to set cookies to provide you with a better customer experience. For more information on these cookies, please see our cookie notice.