The new employment tribunal rules of procedure were published earlier this week and are due to come into force on 29 July 2013, the same date that fees are introduced into the employment tribunal.
The rules introduce some new concepts to the employment tribunal process including a sift stage. The sift stage is a preliminary step which requires an employment judge to conduct an initial review of both the claim and the response to assess the merits of the case. If, after this review, the employment judge decides that the claim has little or no merit, the claim can be struck out in full or in part.
It is hoped that the introduction of the sift stage will prevent cases with little prospect of success reaching a final hearing and result in significant cost saving both for the tribunal service and the parties. However, it is questionable whether the sift stage will be as effective at reducing vexatious claims as employers may hope. Arguably it is often very difficult to assess whether claims, particularly in cases of discrimination, contain any merit purely from a paper assessment. Although the sift stage may ensure parties who are represented plead their cases more clearly, in practice it may be difficult to strike out all but the most vexatious of cases.
The new rules also seek to reduce the costs for the parties by introducing one preliminary hearing rather than the current system which requires separate case management discussions and pre-hearing reviews. At the new preliminary hearing, the tribunal will be able to deal with preliminary issues as well as make case management orders to progress the claim. Although broadly a positive change, in order for the new system to be effective, the tribunal will need to ensure that parties have a clear indication of the matters to be discussed at the preliminary hearing in advance. If advance warning of issues is not provided, unrepresented parties may find themselves asked to deal with matters for which they are not prepared which may inevitably cause further delay to the process.
It remains to be seen whether the new rules will assist in making the tribunal process a more efficient and less costly process for both the tribunal and the parties.