Employment Tribunals – something worth watching?

Employment Tribunals – something worth watching?

Advocacy Cup

Written by Megan Brown, LLB (Hons) Law (full-time)

Last week I visited Nottingham’s Employment Tribunal Centre (ET) for the first time hoping to observe a case. I have started studying Employment Law this year, which I enjoy, but it is not an easy subject. I had not visited an ET before. I was intrigued to see the law working in practice and hoped it would provide me with better clarity on how the law is applied.

Upon arrival, at about 10 am, we were informed by security that neither party had legal representation and that there was a strong possibility that they would not turn up. This made me realise how limited access to legal support can be. It was daunting to imagine running a legal argument without such support. Would either party have an intimate grasp of the legal basis for the claim?

We returned to the tribunal for the scheduled time of 11 am. The claimant had arrived, but the respondent hadn’t. We were guided into the tribunal room and the first thing that struck me was how it seemed more relaxed compared to the crown court.

The hearing stared with the Judge introducing himself and confirming the claimant’s name. He then went on to explain what the claim was and the statute surrounding the areas of dispute. The claimant had stated that she was owed holiday pay. She also claimed unfair dismissal. She had a financial amount she felt was outstanding.

There was no contract of employment. The judge used the claimant’s evidence, relevant documents and statutory law to work out the merit of the claim. He set out that the amount owed was less than that claimed. He drew reference to the specific document and statutory law as he made each point.

The claimant argued she was owed more, but couldn’t persuade the judge on what such calculations were based upon.  As an observer my conclusion was that the claimant was unsure as to the value of her claim. The judge was patient and remained impartial. He expressed his sympathy for the claimant, but explained that he ‘was a creature of statute’.

At the conclusion the judge gave his judgment, which started with his name and the date.  His judgment was in favour to the claimant, but for an amount below what the claimant had wanted.

I found the trial quite difficult to follow due to there being complete confusion on how much the claim was worth. It felt like watching two people conversing in a different language at times. I do not place blame on either for this. The judge was limited to the legal merits of the case. The claimant had great passion in their arguments, but little in legal context. I found it difficult to understand why the judge was asking some questions at the time. When judgment was given those questions made more sense as he set out the various statutory tests.

It made me realise what a difficult role the judiciary must have in this scenario. I had, perhaps naively, thought he would advise the claimant a little. He remained impartial. He gave opportunity to be persuaded by the claimant’s argument. This made me consider what the role of a judge is in this type of situation. What would have happened if the respondent had turned up? I am sure the judge would have kept his approach the same. He would not have been able to advise either side. How would a judge unpick the legal issues if both parties had been present? Would he become some informal mediator, or simply judge on the legal facts?

Overall, I found the whole experience very beneficial, with the main thing I learnt being that the Judge is bound by what has been pled. They will not expand beyond what has been pled, even if there is an obvious argument that may have been missed.

I believe all law students should go and observe cases both in tribunals and in court as it not only helps with the understanding of how the procedures work but also may help make us better advisors in the future.

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