Tribunals: 3PB's experience of their reopening

3rd August 2020

It has now been a full month since tribunals reopened their doors to in-person hearings on 29 June 2020. Employment barrister Gareth GrahamGareth GrahamCall: 2006 provides an update of what has changed since the reopening.

During the past month, guidance as to how those in-person hearings should operate has not changed to any significant degree. On a practical level, hearing venues have taken steps to allow for social distancing. For example, at Reading, two of the four hearing rooms have been used as waiting rooms. Inevitably, that reduces the capacity for hearings themselves. HMCTS is now asking that court and tribunal users wear a face covering (unless one of the specified exemptions apply) in common areas.

In advance of hearings, tribunals continue to ask for hard copies of witness statements and bundles to be sent to the hearing venue, as well as for digital copies to be sent by email, two working days before the hearing.

There is no doubt that judges and tribunal staff are working very hard to keep the wheels of justice turning. Some hearings have gone ahead successfully. However, there can also be no doubt that the tribunal system is being placed under considerable strain.

Others reading this article may have experienced their own difficulties with cases as a result of the pandemic. Over the past month, the (minor) practical difficulties I have encountered include the following:

  • In some telephone hearings, the digital copy of the bundle has not been passed on to the judge in advance of the hearing and has had to be sent by email during the hearing itself.
  • Confirmation that a hearing is going to take place (in-person or via video) has been difficult to obtain, often not until the day before the hearing is due to start.
  • Tribunals have changed hearings from in-person to video at short notice.

Despite these issues, we have found judges to be highly flexible and accommodating in dealing with practical difficulties that occur and that they are plainly working hard so that hearings remain effective.

Perhaps the most common issue faced by tribunal users is that final hearings are often not being listed for a considerable period. In some venues (such as Watford and Reading), hearings of two days or more are generally not being listed until well into 2022.

Whilst we have heard comments being made that additional resources may help to ease the strain, such as increased use of fee-paid judges and funds being used to provide judges with second screens so that video hearings are easier to manage, it is difficult not to be concerned that the backlog is simply going to increase if the numbers of claims increase as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme comes to an end, potentially resulting in significant numbers of employees being dismissed.

To read Joseph England's article on members’ experiences of returning to in-person hearing when tribunals first reopened, please click here.