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Employment Law Changes – April 2012

A number of changes to employment law take effect in April 2012. The coalition government has stated that these changes are being made to streamline and modernise the employment tribunal system and promote efficiency and flexibility in the labour market.

Qualifying Period for Unfair Dismissal Rights Extended

With effect from 06 April 2012 the normal period of continuous employment for eligibility for unfair dismissal rights will increase from one year to two years. This change will only apply to employees whose continuous period of employment starts on or after 06 April 2012. Employees whose period of continuous employment commenced prior to 06 April 2012 will retain their right to claim unfair dismissal if they have worked for their employer for more than one year but less than two or will gain unfair dismissal rights after having been employed for one year.

In cases where the dismissal for one of the number of reasons which are stated as being “automatically unfair”, such as dismissal where the reason or principal reason is pregnancy or maternity leave, or because the employee has made protected disclosures, are unaffected by the change and in these cases there will continue to be no minimum period of qualifying service required before the employee can bring an unfair dismissal claim.

The same change is taking place in relation to the qualifying period of continuous employment required before an employee can request a written statement of reasons for dismissal. This is increasing from one year to two years with effect from 06 April 2012. The exception continues to be cases where the employee is dismissed during maternity leave or adoption leave. In this situation they are entitled to be provided with a written statement of reasons for dismissal on request even if they have worked for the employer for less than the minimum qualifying period.

Changes to Employment Tribunal Procedure

A number of changes are taking place to employment tribunal procedure in April 2012. With effect from 06 April 2012 the maximum amount which an Employment Judge or tribunal may order a party to pay as a deposit if they view a case as having little reasonable prospects of success will increase from £500 to £1000. An increase is also being made to the maximum amount which an Employment Judge or tribunal may order a party to pay by way of costs, expenses or preparation time. This rises from £10,000 to £20,000. Employment Judges and tribunals are also being given the power to order a party to pay the expenses incurred by a witness in attending a tribunal to give evidence. It is clear that changes are being made in order to dissuade employees from pursuing unmeritorious claims.

Another change taking effect from April 2012 is that Employment Judges will be given the power to hear unfair dismissal claims sitting alone, instead of with two lay members. Arguably this reform makes a fundamental change to the nature of the employment tribunal system. The concept of the “industrial jury”, which when deciding cases would not only apply the law but also their experience of workplaces and industrial relations, was fundamental to the establishment of the industrial tribunal system. It will remain possible for an Employment Judge to order a case to be heard by a full tribunal if it raises complex issues, or there are likely to be substantive issues of fact or law which make it desirable for the case to be heard by a full tribunal rather than an Employment Judge sitting alone. It remains to be seen how this discretion will operate in practice.