What are the Employment Tribunals?

The Employment Tribunals are the judicial body with responsibility for workplace justice, being the main forum for deciding disputes between workers and employers. They are part of the wider judicial system, and one of the three largest tribunals in the greater tribunals system.

Previously called the Industrial Tribunals, Employment Tribunals were established in 1964. Initially, they decided appeals against training levy assessments imposed on employers by Industrial Training Boards. They still hear some appeals against administrative decisions, in respect of matters like the minimum wage or health and safety notices, but they have changed beyond recognition over the last 60 years. You can read more about the history of Employment Tribunals in this talk by the President (PDF). A list of previous Presidents is available here.

There are two separate jurisdictions for Employment Tribunals in Great Britain: one for England and Wales and one for Scotland. Each is led by a senior judge (who has the statutory title of President) and each has its own independent judiciary. They have shared rules of procedure, known as the Employment Tribunals Rules of Procedure, and they sometimes issue joint directions and guidance, which can be found on these web pages.

The directions and guidance, whether or not issued jointly with the Employment Tribunals in Scotland, can be found in the section Orders, Directions and Guidance.

The Employment Tribunals Rules of Procedure are contained at Schedule 1 of the Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2013. You can also find them in the Rules section on these web pages.

The most senior leadership judge, as with all tribunals, is the Senior President of Tribunals. You can read more about the Senior President online.

What types of cases do the Employment Tribunals decide?

The cases for which the Employment Tribunals are best known include unfair dismissal and redundancy claims, claims about unpaid wages or unpaid holiday pay, claims of unlawful discrimination, and claims of detrimental treatment following protected disclosures (often called “whistleblowing”). Most of their caseload consists of claims for compensation or other remedies made by workers against employers.

The ability of the Employment Tribunals to decide cases and to award compensation or other remedies is set out in legislation passed by Parliament. Cases are not decided arbitrarily, but according to law. The most important items of legislation are the Employment Tribunals Act 1996, the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Equality Act 2010, but there are many other statutes and statutory instruments of relevance.

For almost all claims, there must have been an attempt at conciliation through Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) before embarking on Employment Tribunal proceedings. Claims are brought using a paper or digital claim form called an ET1, and employers can defend those claims using a paper or digital response form called an ET3. There are strict time limits.

Some cases before the Employment Tribunals are about relatively small amounts of money, with hearings lasting an hour. Others, such as equal pay cases, are complex and high value, involving many parties and with hearings lasting several weeks, and may require one or more preliminary hearings for “case management” purposes to ensure that they are ready. Most cases fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

The Employment Tribunals deal with tens of thousands of claims a year on a wide range of matters, including those brought by individual claimants and those brought collectively by large groups of claimants. Some of these claims are withdrawn or settled before they reach a hearing. Sometimes, they are settled as a result of judicial mediation or another form of “alternative dispute resolution”. Where a claim cannot be settled or mediated, there must be a judicial determination following a hearing. The Employment Tribunals conduct thousands of such hearings every year.

How formal are the Employment Tribunals?

Employment Tribunals are not the same as courts, although they share some common features with them.

Claims are brought and defended by people with professional legal representation, with lay representation (e.g. by a friend or relative), or with no representation at all. People are free to represent themselves if they wish, and they may be accompanied if they wish.

The rules of procedure used by Employment Tribunals are less formal than the rules followed in the courts, and are designed to give flexibility in ensuring that each case is determined fairly and justly. Where appropriate, Employment Tribunals can adjust their procedures to ensure effective participation by people with a disability or a vulnerability.

Save in exceptional situations, all hearings at which a claim is decided (including virtual hearings) are held in public. Judgments are published on an online register. For more information on the register, look in the After the Hearing section.

Employment Tribunals deal with their users in both English and Welsh and can arrange interpretation services for hearings in other languages where that is needed.