Taking a case to a tribunal
Taking a case to tribunal is not always the best way of dealing with a dispute. It's usually a good idea for you to try to sort out problems at work through discussion with colleagues and management.
If an informal discussion doesn’t resolve the issue or isn’t practical, it is important for you to follow the employer’s grievance and disciplinary procedures. A tribunal can take account what happens during these processes in deciding a case.
In many situations, outside advice from organisations such as the Labour Relations Agency may help. The LRA also offers a free and confidential conciliation service prior to submitting a claim to a tribunal (and indeed after a claim has been submitted).
In considering whether to take a case to an Industrial Tribunal or the Fair Employment Tribunal, it is important to check that the tribunal has power to deal with the issue and ensure that a claim is sent to the tribunal within the appropriate time limit.
What Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal do
Both types of tribunal work in much the same way. They're less formal than some other courts, but you still give evidence on oath and if you do not tell the truth you can be accused of perjury.
If you have made an application to an Industrial Tribunal or Fair Employment Tribunal then you will have a hearing. At the hearing a Tribunal panel will review the facts of your case and decide an outcome called a 'judgment'.
Cases are usually heard by a panel of three people - a legally qualified chairperson, and two 'lay members', one with an employer background and one with an employee background. The lay members use their employment experience in judging the facts. In some circumstances, the chairperson will sit on their own when hearing any legal arguments for example.
There is no charge for making a claim at either tribunal. So unless you are paying a representative, like a solicitor there is no cost in making a claim.
Starting the process
The first step that you need to take is to complete a claim form. You can get one from either:
- your local Jobs and Benefit office
- Advice NI
- the Office of Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal (OITFET).
You can also complete the form online on the OITFET website to give information about yourself, your employer and your complaint.
Send the claim form to OITFET and they'll send a copy to your employer. Your employer has to respond within 28 days.
Most tribunal claims must be made within three months of the incident, but this can vary. Tribunals will only extend the time limit in exceptional circumstances. As OITFET cannot provide advice, you may wish to seek independent assistance if you are unsure about a time limit.
When your claim will go ahead
The tribunal will check whether you can make the claim. If there's any doubt, there will 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 of up to £500. You won't get your deposit back if you lose.
If the case goes ahead, '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 as you may not win. You can usually withdraw your complaint at any time before the hearing. The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free and impartial conciliation to you and your employer.
Where a settlement through conciliation doesn’t seem likely, the LRA can also advise you of the possibility of resolving a dispute via arbitration. If you and your employer agree to this, an independent person will make a decision on the dispute without the need for a tribunal.
The tribunal will tell you 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, make sure that you have all the paperwork that you will 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 will then come 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 them to attend. If you decide to represent yourself the panel will try to make things clear for you.
Depending on your financial situation, you may be entitled to Legal Aid to help you obtain legal advice on your claim and to prepare your case, but not for representation at the hearing.
If you're a member of a trade union, they may pay for a solicitor. Some household insurers pay reasonable legal costs, but check your policy documents. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland may be able to help if you are claiming that discrimination has taken place.
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:
- a basic award - calculated based on your on age and length of service
- a compensatory award which has a maximum limit (the maximum is rarely awarded)
Compensation can be awarded for wrongful dismissal or other breaches of contract and is subject to a maximum limit. Compensation is intended to replace lost earnings. There's no payment for hurt feelings, with the exception of discrimination cases. You have to try to reduce your loss (for example, by getting another job or claiming benefit).
The Tribunal may make an additional award on top of the two awards above if it orders your employer to re-employ you but your employer does not comply.
If you have claimed Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) or Income Support (IS) since the event, recoupment may apply to your case.
Recoupment prevents double payment. It means your employer may deduct some or the entire amount you claimed in JSA or IS from the compensation awarded to you by an Industrial Tribunal and repay it to your local benefits office.
This rule applies when an Industrial Tribunal makes a monetary award for unfair dismissal and if applicable, for your employer's failure to:
- make a guarantee payment in case of compensation for redundancy
- pay your wages during a period of medical or maternity suspension
- pay a 'protective award' to you if you are made redundant, or about be made redundant
- consult workplace representatives in collective redundancy situations
If you lose
You can ask the tribunal to review its decision, although the grounds for doing so are limited. It's also possible to appeal to the High Court, which only looks at points of law.
So, for example, you can't appeal if you think the tribunal just got the facts wrong. In this case, you have the right to legal aid.
Where you can get help
The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues for residents of Northern Ireland.
For more information on resolving workplace disputes, the LRA has produced a Code of Practice and associated guidance.
- Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures - Code of Practice
- Advice on handling discipline and grievances at work
Advice NI offers free and impartial advice.
If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.
More useful links