Tribunal case backlog mounts as redundancies soar

Employment tribunal case numbers have soared in the wake of the coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus crisis has led to a big backlog in tribunal cases - Credit: Nick Ansell/PA

Redundancies sparked by the coronavirus pandemic have led to a mountain of outstanding tribunal cases, East Anglian lawyers have warned.

Birketts - which has its headquarters in Ipswich and operates across the region - said a sharp rise in new claims had only added to an existing backlog as cases reach a 10-year high. Some cases might not be heard until 2022, it warned.

Quarterly Ministry of Justice figures for July to September 2020 show single claims rising by 13% nationally year-on-year to 11,000. Multiple claims rose by 24% to 19,000 - bringing overall levels to their highest since 2013/14.

The sharp rise has let to a 22% increase in the outstanding caseload - with the average case age at disposal standing at 39 weeks - a rise of five weeks compared to 2019.

Meanwhile, the number of claims disposed of is 39% down on the same period last year - and the backlog is expected to increase, Birketts has warned. 

"The government has allocated only 4% of its courts recovery money to employment tribunals, despite the increasing caseload and the expectation of even more cases in the coming months," the firm said.

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The most likely cause for the backlog is the volume of redundancies which have followed in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, it said, which had put added pressure on a tribunal system which was already facing "severe" operational difficulties as a results of coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing guidelines.

Catherine Johnson, a partner in Birketts’ employment team, said both employers and employees were trying to navigate a "fluid and rapidly-changing landscape of support" for those affected by the pandemic.  

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"As the tribunal backlog continues to grow we are hearing reports of some longer hearings not being scheduled until 2022 in some parts of the country," she said.

"The cost of defending these is dependent on several factors, including the complexity of any legal issues involved, the volume of evidence, the number of witnesses and the length of a hearing – all of which could be exacerbated during Covid-19, making forward planning and future-proofing increasingly difficult, undoubtedly leading to further cases to be heard at employment tribunals.

"We encourage anyone involved in a claim to be heard at tribunal to see clear legal advice as soon as possible.”

The government has introduced "Nightingale" courts to provide extra capacity to hear cases, with extra investment in audio and video technology to allow for more remote hearings to be conducted.

But Birketts pointed out that of the 10 Nightingale courts announced, the closest to the East of England are in Stevenage and Peterborough - with a further two in London.

Birketts paralegal Abbie Head said the firm's lawyers were already dealing with remote hearings, and guiding employees and employers through the adapted process. "This is an important time to be ahead of the game,” she said.

In December, conciliation body industrial relations body ACAS extended its early conciliation period to six weeks from one month with the option to extend by 14 days. Although the impact of this was not yet known, Birketts said it hoped it might lead to a decrease in the backlog in tribunal cases.

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