Law guide: Workplace

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Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunals

Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunals

Industrial Tribunals

An Industrial 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.

Fair Employment Tribunals

A Fair Employment Tribunal deals with complaints of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion. They work in a very similar way to the industrial tribunals.

What is a tribunal?

Industrial Tribunals hear cases involving employment disputes. Fair employment tribunals hear cases involving discrimination on the grounds of religious or political belief. They're less formal than some other courts, but you give evidence on oath, and if you lie you can be accused of perjury.

Cases are usually heard by a panel of three people – a legally qualified chairperson, and two 'lay members'. The lay members use their employment experience in judging the facts. Sometimes the chairperson sits on their own (for example, to hear any legal arguments).

Do you need to go to a 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're within the time limits

Starting the process

The Labour Relations Agency 'Early Conciliation' scheme

Before starting a claim in an Industrial or Fair Employment Tribunal, you must first notify the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) to discuss 'early conciliation' of the dispute. This is a free dispute resolution service that helps resolve workplace disputes. The LRA can be informed of your claim by completing their online form. Alternatively the form can be downloaded their website and sent to the LRA or by calling them to compete the form.

Provided both parties agree to use the scheme, you will have a month to try to resolve the dispute (this can be extended for 14 days by the conciliation officer if they believe there is a reasonable prospect of reaching an agreement). In the meantime, the time limits for starting a claim will be 'frozen'.

If a settlement cannot be reached, the LRA will give you an Early Conciliation certificate. This will also be given where either side refuses to use Early Conciliation, or can't be contacted. This certificate will show that they believe a settlement will not be possible.

You will need the certificate in order to start a claim at an Industrial or Fair Employment Tribunal.

When to use Early Conciliation

The LRA will offer the 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 your employer has already referred the dispute to the LRA, or if the dispute involves multiple claims.

See the LRA website for more information on the scheme.

The required form

First complete a form ET1, which you can get from:

  • Jobcentre Plus
  • The Labour Relations Agency (LRA)
  • Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB)
  • An Industrial Tribunal office
  • The Industrial Tribunal Service's website

The CAB can help you complete the form.

You may be entitled to Legal Aid if you seek help from a solicitor. This type of Legal Aid is limited and will not cover representation at a tribunal hearing.

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 minimum statutory disciplinary, dismissal and grievance procedures set out in the Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2004 ('the SDDG procedures'). The Labour Relations Agency has produced advice on handling discipline and grievances at work.

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

Time limits

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

Will your claim go ahead?

The tribunal will check whether you can make the claim. If there's any doubt, there'll be a preliminary hearing, usually in front of the chairperson.

The tribunal can decide that your claim isn't likely to succeed and order a pre-hearing review 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 and settle your claim before going to the tribunal because you're not guaranteed of winning. You can usually withdraw your complaint at any time before the hearing. The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) 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 seven 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 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. Some household insurers pay reasonable legal costs – check your policy documents. In complicated cases you can sometimes get help from the Law Centre (NI) or if your claim is in relation to discrimination, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

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 unless they decide you or your employer acted unreasonably in bringing the case, or if any representatives at the hearing behaved unreasonably.

If you win

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

For unfair dismissal claims the award is made up of:

  • The basic award (calculated based on your own age and length of service), and
  • A compensatory award, which has a maximum limit and is reviewed annually (although the maximum is rarely awarded). You can see the current limit on the unfair dismissal compensatory award here.

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).

If you win a dismissal case, the tribunal can order your employer to give you your job back, if you want it, or, you could seek an order for an alternative job with the same employer.

If you lose

You can ask the tribunal to review its decision, although the grounds are limited. It's also possible to appeal to the Court of Appeal, which only looks at points of law (so you can't appeal if you think the tribunal just got the facts wrong). In this case, you may have the right to Legal Aid.

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