New plans to improve the way in which workplace disputes are resolved have been published alongside an "Employer's Charter" in a consultation document ‘Workplace Disputes - A Consultation'. The measures are designed to give businesses more confidence to take on workers and support growth.

Tribunal claims rose to 236,000 last year - a record figure and a rise of 56% on 2009 - and business has to spend almost £4,000 on average to defend itself against a claim. Concerns have been raised by businesses that the system has become too costly, takes too much time, places unnecessary strains on small businesses and that it is too easy to make unmerited or vexatious claims.

The Government wants to enable workplace disputes to be resolved as early and as easily as possible. The key proposals set out in a consultation published today are:

  • Giving businesses greater confidence to hire new staff by increasing the qualifying period for employees to be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years - this will also ultimately reduce the number of disputes that go to Employment Tribunals.
  • Encouraging parties to resolve disputes between themselves as early as possible - requiring all claims to be lodged with Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) in the first instance to allow pre-claim conciliation to be offered. This also includes introducing settlement offers to encourage parties to make reasonable offers of settlement to avoid Tribunal hearings and encouraging parties to consider other forms of early dispute resolution such as mediation.
  • Speeding up the tribunal process - extending the jurisdictions where judges would sit alone to include unfair dismissal, introducing the use of legal officers to deal with certain case management functions and taking witness statements as read. This will result in Employment Tribunal resources being used more efficiently and allow cases to be listed and heard more quickly, saving time and cost.
  • Tackling weak and vexatious claims - providing the Employment Tribunals with a range of more flexible case management powers so that weaker cases can be dealt with in a way that does not mean disproportionate costs for employers.There is also a commitment for the Ministry of Justice to consult separately on introducing fees for Employment Tribunal cases and appeals, to ensure that users contribute towards the cost of running the system.
    The consultation document also includes proposals to:
    • Increase the provision of information - aimed at reducing speculative claims; this would require more information on the nature of the claim being made and to include a statement of loss. It will help parties to decide whether to agree a settlement offer or proceed to a Tribunal hearing.
    • Withdraw the payment of expenses - encouraging parties to either settle earlier or reduce the number of witnesses they call.
    • Introduce financial penalties for employers found to have breached rights - aimed at encouraging greater compliance from employers and thus a reduction in the number of Tribunal cases.

The intention of the Charter is to raise awareness and give clarity amongst employers on what they can and can't do when managing their staff and covers a wide range of employment law issues.

The joint BIS and Tribunals Service consultation document can be found by clicking here and will run from the 27 January to 20 April 2011.

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