Employment tribunal hearings
If you've got a problem at work that you can't sort out, you may be able to make a claim to an employment tribunal.
This page tells you what happens at a tribunal hearing, including what to do when you get there, and what to wear. There is also information about what will happen during the hearing, and what you need to do.
There may be other ways of sorting out your problem than making a claim to an employment tribunal.
To find out more about other ways of sorting out your problem at work, see Sorting out problems at work.
To find out more about making a claim to an employment tribunal, including when you should make a claim and how to make one, see Employment tribunals.
If you have a representative, they will normally do all the case preparation and act as your representative at the tribunal. Usually, you'll still have to speak at the tribunal to give your evidence.
If you can't find a representative, you'll have to attend the tribunal without one. Don’t worry about this. Employment tribunals are set up for ordinary employees to appear on their own and many people don't have a representative. Tribunals are used to people appearing without a representative.
To find out more about having a representative at an employment tribunal hearing, see What help can I get with a problem at work
You should aim to arrive at the employment tribunal at least half an hour before the hearing starts. When you arrive a clerk will check you in at reception. They will usually ask if you have a representative, any witnesses and any documents for the tribunal.
You will then be shown to the employee or claimant’s waiting room. You will be in a separate waiting room to your employer and the clerk will come and get you when the tribunal is ready for the hearing. Don't forget that an employment tribunal is usually a public hearing, so there might be other people in the room when you go through for the hearing.
Before the hearing the employer’s representative may come to your waiting room to discuss the case, and try to make a last minute settlement. If you have a representative, they will handle this conversation. Last minute settlements in the tribunal are quite common and even at this late stage you can agree a settlement rather than go through with the hearing.
If you don't have a representative, negotiating a last minute settlement can be difficult. If you can, you should be prepared for this. Before you go to the tribunal, think about what you would want from a last minute settlement if your employer's representative wants to discuss this.
Your employer’s representatives might try to put pressure on you to withdraw your case or to settle. Try not to be intimidated by them and ask them to explain anything you don't understand. Don’t be bullied into agreeing to something that you're not happy with, and try to use the situation to your advantage. If you do agree a last-minute settlement, the tribunal will often offer to record the terms of the settlement so that you have a record of the deal. You will then be able to enforce it if the employer doesn’t pay up.
The employment tribunal is a public, legal hearing, so try to dress as smartly as you can. Don’t go to too much trouble to dress up, but you shouldn't wear casual clothes like jeans and trainers. Don't chew gum and switch off your mobile phone when you go into the hearing. You shouldn't take food or drink into the tribunal room unless you have special health reasons to do so.
You can bring friends or family with you to support you if you want to. They will be able to sit behind you in the tribunal room but they must be quiet and never interrupt the tribunal.
If you have a representative and you need to speak to them during the case, write down what you want to say on a piece of paper and pass it to them.
You should address the employment tribunal panel members as either sir or madam.
It's important that you understand what's going on, and you're entitled to ask if you don't. So if the tribunal panel or your employer's representative says something that you don't understand, ask them to explain what they mean. You can take the time you need to understand things and answer a question.
Sometimes people feel scared or daunted by how their employer's representative is treating them. It's a usual tactic for the employer's representative to try to intimidate you. But if you're really unhappy with how you're being treated you should raise this with the judge.
Employment tribunals are normally in office buildings and the hearings are held in individual tribunal rooms.
Who makes up the tribunal panel
There are three members of the tribunal who will decide on your case. Together they are called the tribunal panel. They are an employment judge 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 an employment judge 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.
Which side goes first
At the beginning of the tribunal hearing, the panel members will introduce themselves. The judge will decide which side goes first. In an unfair dismissal claim the employer usually goes first. In a discrimination claim the employee usually goes first. Sometimes each side will be invited to make an opening statement to the tribunal about their case, although this doesn't happen very often.
If you start first, you will usually start by reading out your witness statement. After you have finished reading your statement, the employer or their representative can ask you questions about what you have said. This is called cross-examination. You should make sure you understand the questions and answer them honestly. The tribunal judge may also ask questions at any time and will often take over the running of the hearing. Sometimes being cross-examined can be difficult because your employer is trying to prove that your case is wrong. You should try to keep calm, take your time and answer honestly, and ask if you don't understand something.
After the employer has finished cross-examination, your representative, if you have one, may ask you a few more questions. This is called re-examination. But normally you will have finished most of what you have to say.
What happens when it's the employer's turn
It's then your employer's turn to call their witnesses to read out their statements. After they've read out their statements, your representative can ask the witnesses questions in cross-examination.
If you don't have a representative, the judge will ask if you've got any questions you'd like to ask the witnesses. This is a good chance to ask them about anything that seems unclear or where there are differences in the evidence. These could be either between what the witnesses are saying, or what the witnesses and the documents are saying.
It's important to question anything the witness has said that you don't agree with. If there are differences in the evidence, it's often a good idea to get one witness to confirm very clearly that what they have said is true. Then ask them to look at the evidence which is different, and ask them to comment on it. If what they are saying is definitely true, then the evidence in the document or the other witnesses statement must be false.
The point of asking these questions is to show the tribunal more evidence to back-up your case. You don't have to get the witness to admit they're wrong.
You might feel angry towards your employer, but take care not to be rude or aggressive, either towards your employer or to any of their witnesses as you might damage your case.
You can think about what you want to ask each witness before the hearing when you get the witness statements from your employer. You can also make a note of anything extra you want to ask while they're reading out their statement.
After all the evidence has been heard
After all the evidence has been heard, the tribunal will usually ask if you'd like to make some more comments. These are called closing submissions. It's a good idea to prepare something to say. A submission gives you an opportunity to sum up the evidence that the tribunal has heard, make legal arguments and explain why you think the tribunal should find in your favour.
If you don't understand the law, it's best not to attempt to make complicated legal points. Most cases don't involve difficult or unusual points of law, and tribunals will get irritated if you spend a lot of time talking about irrelevant issues. Presenting the facts as clearly as possible is the most important thing you need to do.
After the closing submissions, the tribunal panel will tell you what happens next. They will need to make their decision. Sometimes they do this on the day, and other times they will take more time and send it to you at a later date.
If they are going to make their decision that day, the tribunal panel will leave the room to decide and tell you their decision when they come back. If they take more time, they will send the decision to you in writing later.
For the next steps in taking action about problems at work, see After the employment tribunal hearing.
For more information about how to sort out problems at work, see Sorting out problems at work.