This advice applies to Northern Ireland. Change country
Understanding employment tribunals
What do employment tribunals do?
Employment tribunals make decisions about employment disputes. Nearly all legal cases about employment are heard in employment tribunals. This includes cases about things like unfair dismissal, redundancy and discrimination. There are also many other sorts of claim that can be brought.
Can I make a claim to an employment tribunal?
If you have a problem with your employer that you want to take to an employment tribunal, it is called making a claim.
Whether you can make a claim depends on what your problem is about and whether you meet certain conditions, for example, about time limits. Usually, you also have three months less one day from when the event happened to make a claim to the tribunal.
You should try to get as much information about your legal rights as possible first. You can do this online, for example through the Employment information on this website. Or you can speak to an adviser or representative.
To find out more about your legal rights, see our Employment section.
To find out more about organisations that might be able to give you help and advice, see What help can I get with a problem at work
Should I make a claim to an employment tribunal?
If possible, you should always try to sort out your problems without going to an employment tribunal. This could be by talking to your employer, taking out a grievance or using the pre-claim conciliation scheme run by The Labour Relations Agency (LRA).
However, if you do want to make a claim to a tribunal and you meet the conditions to make a claim, you then have to decide whether you want to do this. It is helpful to know how strong your claim is but assessing this can be quite difficult.
If you have an adviser or representative, they will usually first decide whether you have a possible claim, whether you meet the conditions to make the claim and what evidence you have. Later on, they will look at how strong or weak your claim is, when they've seen what your employer has to say and what evidence your employer has. So it can take some time before your adviser or representative is able to weigh up your chances of success.
When you're looking at your claim, try to think honestly about what evidence you have to back up your arguments, and what evidence your employer might have to back up theirs. You should also be aware that tribunals can be unpredictable in their decisions, or that there might be evidence you haven't thought about. So even if you appear to have a strong case, there's no guarantee you will win.
But it's a good idea to think about how strong your case is as this can help you decide whether or not you want to make a claim and whether you want to settle your case before you get to tribunal.
To find out more about other ways to sort out your problem without going to an employment tribunal, see What to do if there's a problem at work.
Do I have to pay a fee to make a claim to an employment tribunal?
In Northern Ireland you do not have to pay a fee to make a claim to an employment tribunal.
What’s it like to go to an employment tribunal?
Employment tribunals usually held in a normal in office building (Killymeal House in Belfast) and the hearings are held in individual tribunal rooms. There are three members of the tribunal who will decide on your case. Together they are called the tribunal panel. They are a legally qualified Chairperson, who will run the proceedings, a person representing employer's organisations and a person representing employee's organisations. Some types of cases and some types of hearings can be heard by The Chairperson alone, without the panel members.
The panel usually sit at a slightly raised desk. The atmosphere is like a court but slightly less formal. For example, nobody wears wigs or gowns, but evidence is taken on oath and there are rules about what happens and who speaks when.
Most hearings are open to the public so it can be useful to go and watch a hearing to get a feel for what it might be like. But bear in mind that all cases are different and yours may not be exactly like the one you go to.
Will I be at risk of having to pay costs?
Employment tribunals are different to the courts when it comes to costs. Unlike the courts, you don't automatically have to pay your employer’s legal costs if you lose the case. You will however, still have to pay your representative.
But there is only a very small chance that you will have to pay your employer's costs. Figures show that costs orders are only made in less than 1% of cases. Your employer's representative may say they will apply for you to pay costs but, usually, they are just trying to scare you into dropping the case or accepting a low offer of settlement.
There are a few situations where there is a risk that you might have to pay costs. For example, this might be if you brought a hopeless case that had no chance of success, or you behaved very badly in the way the case was run or you turned down a good offer to settle.
If your claim involves a breach of contract your employer can, if appropriate, bring a counterclaim against you. You can find out more about this on the NI Direct website at: www.nidirect.gov.uk
Can I change my mind about going to an employment tribunal?
If you've made a claim to an employment tribunal and change your mind, you can withdraw your claim. For example, you might decide that you don't want to carry on your case because you feel that you may lose. You can withdraw by simply writing to the tribunal saying that you want to withdraw your claim.
But you need to be careful about the timing of this. The best time to make this decision is when you know what your employer’s case is going to be and you can think about the strengths and weaknesses of your own case. If you leave this decision to later on, after your employer has spent a lot of money dealing with your claim, you may be at risk of having to pay costs.
If you agree a settlement with your employer through the Labour Relations Agency, your case will usually be automatically withdrawn from the tribunal and you won’t normally have to go to a hearing.
If you agree a settlement with your employer in another way, you or your representative will need to make sure you withdraw your case from the tribunal.
Don’t panic about making a claim to an employment tribunal
Making a claim to an employment tribunal can be stressful. Although you may be nervous about starting a case remember that many people run their own successful tribunal claims – it is possible!
Also, many cases settle before the case gets to a hearing. The system is designed to encourage you and your employer to settle your differences. You will have a chance to try and reach a settlement. The Labour Relations Agency will automatically become involved in most cases and can help in getting settlements.
For the next steps in taking action about problems at work, see Starting an employment tribunal claim.
More about problems at work
For more information about how to sort out problems at work, see Sorting out problems at work.