As lockdown restrictions ease and we can look forward to luxuries such as a haircut and a visit to the pub, there is talk of returning to “normal”. But do we want to return to the old ways of doing things? We may be fed up of Zoom meetings, but you have to admit that once everyone has found the unmute button, they can be more efficient than travelling an hour up the M1 to meet colleagues.

One area that could do with not going back to normal is the employment tribunal system. The system that was designed as a quick, informal way of employees seeking justice, is bursting at the seams. Employment tribunal claimants now face waiting up to 46 weeks for their hearing and more than 51,600 claims are sitting in the system waiting to be dealt with. This figure will only rise when the furlough scheme ends and businesses are forced to make redundancies.

It is therefore encouraging to see that some of the practices adopted during the pandemic, such as remote video hearings, are to continue. It has been announced today that a new ‘virtual region’ will be introduced, allowing around 100 judges to hear cases by video from all over the country. 

The tribunals recognise that the remote hearings forced upon them by the pandemic have been beneficial and have allowed a steady increase in the number of cases heard.

If you are bringing a claim to tribunal, or defending one, here are a few things you can expect over the next year:

  • Preliminary case management hearings will default to telephone or video.
  • Hearings to determine a preliminary issue, such as time limits and employment status, will default to video.
  • Preliminary hearings to consider an application to strike out a claim or request a deposit order, will default to video.
  • Judicial mediations will default to telephone or video.
  • Final hearings of straightforward claims (unpaid wages, notice, holiday pay, redundancy pay etc) will default to video.
  • Final hearings of unfair dismissal claims will gradually return to in person hearings at the tribunal building. However, if your case is in one of the areas where the backlog is most severe, such as London and the South East, video hearings will continue for some time.
  • Final hearings of more complicated claims such as discrimination and whistleblowing will default to in-person in some parts of the country, although parties will be able to request a remote hearing. In London and the South East, parties should expect to see greater reliance on video.

It’s refreshing to see the legal sector moving with the times. These changes may have happened eventually, but perhaps the pandemic was just the catalyst needed to shake things up a bit.