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Employment tribunal claims backlog set to pass half a million due to Covid, warns Citizens Advice

22 October 2020
  • Charity warns of a ‘perfect storm’ in the tribunal system, with rising demand at a time of restricted capacity

  • The backlog for individual cases has already passed post-2008 financial crisis record

  • Three in 10 unfair dismissal cases being withdrawn as workers face 34-week wait for a decision

New analysis of employment tribunal data by Citizens Advice reveals that if the backlog of claims continues to increase at the current rate, outstanding claims could pass 500,000 by spring. 

Even this could be a conservative estimate, the charity is warning, as it does not include a potential rise in employment tribunal cases following the wave of redundancies expected as the furlough scheme draws to an end. 

The charity’s analysis shows the backlog for individual cases has already passed the post-2008 financial crisis record, with 37,000 workers in the queue.

Latest figures show the average wait time for single claims related to discrimination and unfair dismissal is 38 weeks, meaning someone putting in a claim this month may not see their case heard until July 2021. Some cases will be subject to even longer waits. 

Citizens Advice’s research has previously shown that disabled people, those asked to shield, and parents and carers are at least twice as likely to be facing redundancy as the rest of the working population. For many workers caught in the coronavirus redundancy crisis, employment tribunals will offer the only route to protecting their rights.

The charity has helped 28,000 people with redundancy issues since the March lockdown. Its frontline advisers have raised concerns over potential employment malpractice cases which could lead to a tribunal, including: 

  • A person who was told they had to come into work despite needing to self-isolate because someone they lived with had tested positive for coronavirus.

  • A parent who believes they are at risk of redundancy over their colleague because their childcare responsibilities mean they can’t work overtime.

  • A worker who was told they’d lost their job by text. They had been with their employer for more than two years and were entitled to a fair redundancy process, including a meeting. 

‘In my 12 years as an adviser I could count the number of meritless claims on one hand.’

Christine Trueman, an employment adviser at Citizens Advice Taunton, said she’s beginning to see more people who’ve been made redundant following whistleblowing about unsafe coronavirus practices in their workplace. 

She said: "By the time someone decides to pursue a tribunal they're often already under a huge amount of stress. Then I have to warn them that the earliest they're likely to get a date is this time next year. If it's a complex case regarding discrimination, we're probably talking about 2022. 

“The waiting and the complexity can grind people down until they're so scared and exhausted they withdraw their case. In my 12 years as an adviser I could count the number of meritless claims on one hand.”

Even before the pandemic, the employment tribunal system already had over 440,000 outstanding claims from both individuals and groups of employees. Between April and June, the number of cases being resolved - either through decision, settlement, withdrawal or dismissal - dropped by 56% to an 11-year low. Within this period, however, the proportion of people withdrawing their unfair dismissal case increased from 21% to 29% - equivalent to three in 10 people withdrawing a claim.  

Employment tribunals have prioritised pandemic-related dismissal claims on health and safety grounds since June. The government has given an £80 million boost to the Courts and Tribunal Service to help the courts system adapt during the pandemic, which includes funding to open temporary Nightingale Courts, three of which are hearing employment tribunals. The Ministry of Justice has also provided £5.4 million to charities and law centres to help with legal issues in the pandemic. 

Citizens Advice, however, believes additional emergency funding is needed to increase capacity further and ensure employment tribunals can clear the backlog. It is also urging the government to fast-track its plans to create a single enforcement body for employment rights, which would relieve pressure on employment tribunals.

‘The process drags on and it’s constantly in the back of your mind’

*Rebecca worked in an administrative role with the same company for more than 15 years. The business began to struggle and Rebecca was made redundant earlier this year, but was not offered her full redundancy entitlement.

She has been supported by Citizens Advice to pursue an employment tribunal claim for non-payment of redundancy pay, with a hearing expected next year.

Rebecca says: “I knew I was entitled to more redundancy pay, so I felt cheated that after all my years of service I was offered so much less than I was owed. I’ve been able to get by, but the whole thing has been stressful and draining. 

“The process drags on and it’s constantly in the back of your mind. All the contact with my employer’s lawyer has really put me on edge. I just want what I’m entitled to so I can get on with my life.”

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Employment tribunals ensure workers' rights are protected in some of the most serious cases, but right now they are facing the perfect storm of rising demand at a time of restricted capacity.

“We know that disabled people, those asked to shield, and parents and carers are at greater risk of redundancy. But if they want to challenge an unfair dismissal or discrimination they already face waiting nine months for their case to be heard, and the pandemic is only going to increase this.  

“Workers who have been treated unfairly need to know employers that break the rules will no longer have lengthy waiting times on their side. Employment tribunals need more emergency funding, and ultimately workers need a one-stop shop to protect their employment rights.”

Notes to editors

  1. *Rebecca’s name has been changed to protect her identity

  2. See the full report ‘Tribunal Trouble: How a backlogged tribunal system is stopping people enforcing their rights’ for more information. 

  3. Analysis of the latest weekly management information released by HM Courts & Tribunals Service, shows the backlog of single claims has grown at a rate of around 1% a week throughout the pandemic - reaching almost 40,000 by the end of September. If the same quarterly increase for single and multiple claims seen between March and June continues, overall outstanding claims will surpass 500,000 a year after the March 23 lockdown started.

  4. A multiple claim refers to instances where a number of employees have alleged unfair practice by their employer. A single claim is where an individual employee has alleged unfair practice by their employer.

  5. At the end of June, there were 37,000 outstanding single claims - surpassing the post-2008 financial crisis record of 36,000.

  6. April - June 2020 data shows the average wait time for a single claim to be heard is 32 weeks. This rises to 34 weeks for an unfair dismissal claim and 39 weeks for the six different types of discrimination claim, with a combined average of 38 weeks. 

  7. In 2009/10, the unemployment rate went up to 7.6% and redundancy and dismissal tribunal claims rose by over half (57%) to 87,000.

  8. Over a quarter (26%) of cases that were dealt with between April and June 2020 were withdrawals - rising to 3 in 10 (29%) for unfair dismissal claims and 2 in 5 (43%) for redundancy pay claims.

  9. Citizens Advice’s report An Unequal Crisis found that disabled people, those asked to shield, and parents and carers are at least twice as likely to be facing redundancy as the rest of the working population.

  10. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

  11. Our network of charities offers impartial advice online and over the phone, for free. 

  12. We helped 2.8 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2019-20. And we had 34.5 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.

  13. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or 0808 223 1144 for Welsh language speakers.