Overview

Tribunal claims
On 26 July 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the regulations introducing tribunal fees in July 2013 were unlawful. Employment tribunals stopped accepting fees with immediate effect. This may lead to an increase in claims, and it is not yet clear whether the government will choose to introduce a new form of fees system at a later date. (For more on this issue, go to What issues arise from the abolition of employment tribunal fees?)

Tribunal claims are inextricably linked with the procedures employers and employees should follow before disputes reach the tribunal (see our Discipline and grievance procedures Q&As).

Dispute resolution procedures in Northern Ireland are slightly different, and Northern Ireland has its own tribunal system.

Compromise and settlement
The important rules currently governing settlement agreements are generally contained in the Employment Rights Act 1996, especially section 203. However, other legislation is also relevant. For example, numerous pieces of legislation all mention the inability to contract out of the relevant employment rights unless by way of a formal agreement.

Fees for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal are no longer payable since the Supreme Court ruled that their introduction in 2013 was unlawful (see R(Unison) v Lord Chancellor). However, this position could change and employers should keep the situation under review.

Three other types of costs may occur in tribunal claims:

  • Compensation payable to the employee if a claim is successful (see 'How is discrimination compensation calculated?' and the Unfair dismissal Q&As).
  • Legal costs payable to solicitors or barristers involved in the case. Usually each party bears its own legal costs (see Q What are the ways of funding legal costs?)
  • Possible fines or penalties payable to the government (see Q What are the fines and penalties which can be payable in the employment tribunal?)

In addition, tribunal claims can absorb significant amounts of management time.

Since employment tribunal fees have been abolished by a decision from the Supreme Court (see below), employees can now pursue tribunal proceedings and appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal without incurring fees for bringing the claim or having it heard. From 28 July 2017 claims can be submitted without a fee, either by post, or in person to tribunal offices. This is a return to the position that existed prior to July 2013.

Refunding fees

The Government has had to repay employees (and also employers) any tribunal fees paid between 2013 and 2017. The refund scheme opened on 15 November 2017. Claims for refunds can now be submitted by employees and employers who paid Employment Tribunal or Appeal Tribunal fees.

Online, post and email refunds are available. Although most refund claims will be from employees, employers who had a tribunal claim brought against them may claim refunds too. Employers can also seek refunds for fees paid for judicial mediations and particularly in connection with EAT appeals.

If an employer was ordered by the tribunal to reimburse tribunal fees paid by a claimant employee, then the employer, rather than the employee, can reclaim the fee.

As well as being refunded the original fee, employers and employees obtaining refunds are entitled to interest of 0.5% from the date the fees were paid.

Settlement agreements

Where tribunal cases have been settled, sometimes employees have had the claim fee reimbursed by employers as part of the settlement money. If the employer reimbursed the fee under a settlement agreement, the employee will be eligible for the refund, unless the wording of the settlement agreement allows the employer to be reimbursed.

Out-of-time claims

The fee system may have deterred some potential claimants from bringing claims and those claims will now be out of time. It is possible that tribunals will use the rules governing the extension of time limits to allow the late submission of claims (for example, outside the normal three-month time frame). Employers that know about such claims should ensure they preserve any information that they need to defend the claim.

Alternatively, some employees may try to claim compensation directly from the Government on the basis they were prevented from pursuing a valid claim. Employees may also seek to revive claims that were started but dismissed for non-payment of fees.

Supreme Court case

Trade union Unison legally challenged the controversial 2013 tribunal fee system, resulting in the Supreme Court decision in July 2017 that the fees regime was unlawful. In the case, R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017], the court’s judges unanimously ruled that tribunal fees prevented access to justice and were indirect discrimination.

Until this case, employees paid an issue fee to present a claim, and a further fee before a hearing could take place. The size of the fee depended on the type of claim involved. The fees triggered a dramatic reduction of between 66-70% in tribunal claims.

Fees in future?

The Supreme Court ruled that the fees regime established in 2013 was unlawful, but it did not decide that any employment tribunal fees system will be unlawful. The government could decide to introduce a new system of fees which are more proportionate and affordable, and which do not have such a deterrent effect on those seeking to enforce their legal rights. However, this seems unlikely for the time being, with the government busy with the exit from the EU, and the risk of further judicial review proceedings challenging any new regulations.

Employers who lose tribunal claims may be ordered to pay a financial penalty on top of any award made to an employee. The penalty is payable to the Secretary of State, not to the employee.

The penalties only apply if the employment tribunal decides that the employer’s breach has 'one or more aggravating features'.

It appears 'aggravating features' may arise where an employer has overtly discriminated, ignored an employee’s grievance or dismissed the employee with transparent unfairness. It is not clear how these penalties will correlate with cases where the compensation can be increased by 25 per cent anyway for failure to follow the Acas Code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

The financial penalties are:

  • discretionary, so the employment tribunal can choose to impose a financial penalty or not
  • based on the total amount of the award made by the employment tribunal
  • calculated as half the amount of the total award so that the level of the penalty is proportionate to the award
  • subject to a minimum of £100 and a maximum of £5,000
  • reduced by 50% if paid within 21 days, and
  • affected by the employer’s ability to pay (in deciding whether to order the employer to pay a penalty the employers’ financial circumstances are taken into account).

Therefore if an employment tribunal makes a financial award to a successful claimant, the financial penalty imposed will be 50% of that award, up to a maximum of £5,000.

If a non-financial award is made such as for reinstatement, the employment tribunal can ascribe a monetary value to the award so that an appropriate financial penalty can be made.

One of the practical effects of these penalties is that employers may have to factor in an additional amount when negotiating an appropriate settlement amount with an employee in an attempt to enter a settlement agreement and avoid an employment tribunal hearing. Although the penalties are not paid to the employee, but to the government, the employee can effectively negotiate with the employer on the basis that it would cost an extra £X if the case reaches the employment tribunal so that sum should be added to the settlement amount.

Failure to pay tribunal awards

There is a special form for claiming penalties from employers who fail to pay employment tribunal awards, or agreed sums due under certain settlement agreements.

A claimant who has not been paid a settlement sum or tribunal award can ask BIS to issue a penalty of 50% of the outstanding amount, subject to a minimum of £100 and a maximum of £5,000.

The penalties will be paid to the government and not the employee. The following procedure will apply:

  • A warning notice must be issued by an enforcement officer giving the employer at least 28 days to pay the sums due.
  • If payment is still not made, a penalty can be imposed of up to 50% of the unpaid amount, subject to an overall maximum of £5,000.

(Section 150 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 and sections 37A to 37Q of the Employment Tribunals Act 1996 provide for these further financial penalties on employers.)

The employer’s own disciplinary, grievance and dismissal procedures and the Acas Code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures should have been followed before the employee files a claim. (If a tribunal finds that there has been an unreasonable failure to follow the Acas code, it may adjust any award payable.) Most parties will make efforts to resolve matters either:

  • between themselves directly
  • by using a private mediator or arbitrator
  • by using Acas early conciliation, or
  • by using a mediator supplied by Acas (this is different from early conciliation).

Early conciliation

Before an employment claim by an employee reaches the tribunal stage, the employee is required to contact Acas with a view to using the early conciliation service before issuing proceedings (see What is Acas early conciliation?).

Acas also provides a mediation service for employers and employees (which is charged for) for parties who have issues to resolve, but which have not yet reached the stage of imminent proceedings.

If the parties cannot find a resolution using such methods, then the employee may present a claim form. The employee will usually only be able to do this if Acas has issued a certificate confirming that the claimant has complied with the early conciliation requirements.

Claim form

Once a claim form is presented, the Tribunals Office will notify the employee promptly if the claim is accepted. Until July 2017, employees were also required to pay a fee for issuing a tribunal claim or to have completed an application form seeking remission from fees, but the fee system has now been quashed by the Supreme Court in the case R(Unison) v the Lord Chancellor [2017]. For more information on this, see 'What fees and costs are payable in an employment tribunal?' below.

For the claim to be accepted, it must be on an approved form provided by the employment tribunals. The form must detail the name and address of the complaining party, the name and address of the respondent employer, and the details of the complaint. If the claim is accepted, a copy will be sent to the respondent employer.

Time limits

The employer must send the completed response form (ET3) to the tribunal within 28 days, otherwise a ‘judgment in default’ can be entered against the employer.

Although employers can ask for an extension to the time limit, it is always safer to respond within 28 days. (An example of the serious consequences for an employer who misses the deadline is provided by NSM Music Ltd v Leefe (2006). The employer was ordered to pay almost £49,000 after missing the 28-day deadline for responding to a claim of unfair dismissal from a former employee.)

There are two ways for employers to return a completed response form:

  • by fax, hand or post to the originating tribunal office.
  • by completing the form online. An acknowledgment of receipt will be generated and sent – employers should call the tribunal office if they don’t receive this within two working days.

The time for presenting a response begins to run when a copy of the claim is sent to the respondent by the tribunal, not from its receipt (Bone v Fabcon Projects Ltd (2006)).

Acas provides a free early conciliation service for those workplace disputes that cannot be resolved internally and are likely to become tribunal claims. The aim is to resolve potential claims at an early stage, before either party incurs the costs associated with issuing proceedings in the tribunal.

One month is allowed for the process, plus a further 14 days in some situations. The conciliation period stops the clock for lodging a tribunal claim, so the normal time limits do not expire during the conciliation period.

If an early conciliation certificate is issued the employee will have at least four weeks from the date of the certificate to lodge a claim, even if the normal time limit would have expired before then. This means that in many cases the ‘new’ time limit for lodging claims will be one month after the date of the certificate.

Acas must issue an early conciliation certificate if:

  • the Acas conciliation officer concludes that it is not possible to achieve a settlement, or
  • the conciliation period ends without agreement.

The early conciliation certificate confirms to the tribunal that a claimant has complied with the early claim requirements.

Every case is reviewed on paper initially by an Employment Judge to confirm whether there is an arguable case and defence.

Once an employer’s response to a claim has been presented, the case file is referred to a judge for consideration. During this initial ‘sift‘, the judge checks that the case falls within the tribunal’s jurisdiction and gives case management orders. The judge will identifying claims which, for example, are:

  • out of time, and
  • weak claims or responses with no reasonable prospect of success.

If such claims are identified, the judge will write to the employer or employee to reply by a fixed date setting out the reasons why their claim should not be dismissed. If that party does not respond the claim (or response) will be struck out automatically. If the party does reply then the Judge will decide whether to hold a preliminary hearing to look into the matter further.

Once the response form (ET3) has been filed by the employer, the tribunal sends a copy of it to the employee (the claimant).

If an employer is late returning the response form to the employment tribunal, or if the response is not on the approved form, this may result in the tribunal making an order by default (a default judgment). If an extension of time is needed the employer should try to either:

  • complete the form as fully as possible and submit it within the time limit, but mention that further information is required, or
  • obtain an extension of time well in advance.

If the employer does not enter a response in time it may not be allowed to resist the employee’s claim. If the employer is late it should explain why in writing. The tribunal will decide whether to allow the employer to enter a late response form and whether any costs are involved. Employers can ask for an extension to the 28-day time limit for responding to a claim, and seek an extension after the time limit has expired. However, it is safer to simply comply with the time limit in the first place.

For further examples, see ‘In what circumstances do employees have extra time to present claims in the employment tribunal? below.’

Copies of the claim and response forms are available from HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

It is best to take advice from a solicitor before completing the response form (ET3). Employment claims can now result in significant awards of compensation.

The response form must be completed in a measured, concise and accurate way.

Copies of the claim and response forms are available from HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

Whether the claim or response forms can be amended after submission is at the discretion of the employment tribunal.

It is best to complete the form as fully and accurately as possible from the outset, but if one of the parties has omitted something important an application to amend the form may be made to the Employment Judge sitting alone before the main hearing. Whether the judge uses their discretion to allow the amendments depends upon a number of factors, including:

  • whether there has been any delay in making the application
  • why the application was not made earlier
  • whether the claim was wrongly formulated
  • whether or not there is a new cause of action which is now out of time and, if so, whether the time limit should be extended under the usual rules
  • the relative injustice and hardship involved to both parties in refusing or granting an amendment.

(See Selkent Bus Co Ltd v Moore (1996) for a summary of the general principles involved in considering amendments to claim and response forms.)

Once a hearing has started, the tribunal will usually refuse permission to raise a completely new claim. A tribunal should not allow a new claim to be added out of time by amending a current claim, unless the criteria for allowing extensions is met.

In Barwick v Avon & Somerset Constabulary (2009) a police constable was dismissed and brought a claim for race discrimination. Police cannot bring unfair dismissal claims, but can bring discrimination ones. The constable did not know this and incorrectly suggested that he was claiming unfair dismissal on an ET1 claim form. The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that he should be allowed to make the amendments because, although it was a different type of claim, it was justified by the facts as originally set out.

Note that all the main time limits listed below (apart from wrongful dismissal claims) may attract extensions. For further information, see ‘In what circumstances do employees have extra time to present claims in the employment tribunal?’ below.

Unfair dismissal

  • Main time limit for application to tribunal: Three months from effective date of termination.
  • Is an extension possible? Yes, to enable early conciliation or if the employment tribunal is satisfied the not reasonable practicable test applies.
  • Statutory reference: Employment Rights Act 1996, section 94.

Redundancy payment

  • Main time limit for application to tribunal: Six months from the relevant date.
  • Is an extension possible? Yes, to enable early conciliation or if the employment tribunal is satisfied the just and equitable test applies.
  • Statutory reference: Employment Rights Act 1996, section 135.

Age, race, sex, disability, religious and sexual orientation discrimination

  • Main time limit for application to tribunal: Three months from the last act complained of.
  • Is an extension possible? Yes, to enable early conciliation or if the employment tribunal is satisfied the just and equitable test applies.

Equal pay

  • Main time limit for application to tribunal: Six months after termination.
  • Is an extension possible? Yes, to enable early conciliation or if the claimant was under a disability and/or if the employment tribunal is satisfied the just and equitable test applies and/or the employer concealed some crucial fact.
  • Statutory reference: Equal Pay Act 1970.

Wrongful dismissal

  • Main time limit for application to tribunal: Three months from effective date of termination (in the civil courts, the time limit for this claim is six years).
  • Is an extension possible? Yes, to enable early conciliation or if the employment tribunal is satisfied the not reasonably practicable test applies.
  • Statutory reference: Employment Tribunals Act 1996, section 3.

Discrimination – continuing acts

Many potentially discriminatory events can be linked to establish an ‘act extending over a period’ (that is, a ‘continuing act’). The claim must be brought within three months of the last discriminatory act complained of.

If such a pattern is not established, each incident is treated as an isolated act carrying its own three-month time limit. If they’re isolated acts carrying their own three-month time limits, a claimant may be out of time for the earlier incidents.

A ‘continuing act’ does have to be a linked series of discriminatory actions, but it does not have to be a policy, practice or regime.

For example, in Hendricks v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (2003), Ms Hendricks, a black female police officer, alleged that she had suffered sex and race discrimination during her 11 years in the Metropolitan Police. She made nearly 100 allegations of discrimination involving 50 or more other police officers. The Commissioner argued that Ms Hendricks was out of time to bring a complaint.

The Court of Appeal held that the harassment and bullying was a ‘continuing act of discrimination,’ which was still going on at the date of the hearing, and that her claim could proceed to a full merits hearing. The Court held that the focus should be on the substance of the complaint and on whether the acts complained of were linked – and not on whether there was an explicit ‘policy’, ‘practice’ or ‘rule’ of discrimination in existence. The same approach was applied in Lyfar v Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust [2006]

The starting point is that all tribunal claims must be made within the normal time limits (see ‘How does the employer check if the employee’s claim is in time?’ above). If an employee does not comply with the time limits the employer may succeed in preventing the employee from pursuing the claim.

Time limits for presenting tribunal claims are very strictly enforced but there may be extensions:

  • to enable Acas early conciliation to take place (see 'What is Acas early conciliation?' above), and/or
  • to carry out what are known as the ‘not reasonably practicable’ or ‘just and equitable’ tests.

‘Not reasonably practicable’ test

In cases such as unfair dismissal, the tribunal may allow the claim to be presented after the usual time limit has expired if it is satisfied that it was ‘not reasonably practicable’ for the employee’s complaint to be presented before the end of the three-month period. The employee has to show that:

  • it was not reasonably practicable to have presented the claim in time, and
  • the claim was eventually presented within a reasonable period.

The tribunal has a wide discretion to decide whether to grant an extension, but examples of cases where time has been extended include where significant postal delays beyond the claimant’s control prevented the claim being presented in time, and where the employee has been seriously ill.

The employer can try persuading the tribunal that it should not extend the time limit.

‘Just and equitable’ test

Late applications are subject to a different test in discrimination cases. The ‘just and equitable’ test provides the tribunal with even greater discretion than the ‘not reasonably practicable’ test.

In some serious discrimination cases, claims have been permitted as long as five and nine years after the events giving rise to them.

For example, a local government officer brought a race discrimination claim nine years after the discriminatory act complained of. He had been given a lower grade than the job he had applied for, but discovered this only when he inspected his personnel file many years later (London Borough of Southwark v Afolabi (2003)).

Examples

Applications for extensions of time are matters of fact and judgment which are decided by tribunals on a case-by-case basis. Some of the decisions are therefore contradictory.

  • Time limits can be strictly enforced. In Fishley v Working Men’s College (2004) an application was out-of-time because it was received at 11 minutes after midnight on the day after the expiry of the permitted three-month period. A broken fax machine was not enough to satisfy the ‘not reasonably practicable’ test.
  • In Lezo v OCS Group UK Ltd (2010), a claim filed 11 days after the deadline was too late. It was beyond a further reasonable period for presenting the claim, particularly as no real reason was given for the delay.
  • By contrast, in Marks & Spencer plc v Williams-Ryan (2005) an extension was granted when an application was 15 days late because the employee was still going through an internal appeal process.
  • In Mehta v The Mayor and Burgesses of London Borough of Haringey (2010) an employee who’d been made redundant was not allowed to bring claims of unfair dismissal and sex and race discrimination eight days later than the time limits under both the not ‘reasonably practicable’ and ‘just and equitable’ tests. There is no mandatory checklist for tribunals dealing with time-limit cases.
  • An extension of time will usually not be allowed by a tribunal where a solicitor representing one of the parties in a tribunal claim is at fault. In Agrico UK Ltd v Ireland (2005), the solicitor went on holiday leaving instructions for his secretary to file a claim form. She was on sick leave and did not file it. Extensions won’t often be granted in such a situation – the remedy is usually to sue the solicitor, who is covered by insurance.
  • If employers mention the time limit for bringing a claim they should tell the employee the correct time limits or suggest they take advice from a solicitor. The employer misinformed the employee as to the time limit for presenting an unfair dismissal claim in Northamptonshire County Council v Entwhistle (2010). The solicitor negligently failed to correct the error, but the employee was not allowed an extension of time.

In the vast majority of cases, parties to a claim in an employment tribunal will have to pay their own legal costs, whether they win or lose. The loser will often pay a significant proportion of the winner’s costs and fees in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. However, in most employment tribunal cases the employer cannot claim their legal costs in the same way (see also ‘Can an employer claim back its legal costs?’).

It is therefore extremely important to arrange for funding of legal expenses in the most cost-effective way possible. Overall legal costs will depend on the charge-out rate and expertise of your solicitor and the complexity and length of the case.

Self-representation

Employers and employees can represent themselves in an employment tribunal. It is far more common for employees to do this. However, in smaller companies the employer may ask HR (or a member of management) to conduct the hearing to save on legal costs (see ‘Can an employer conduct tribunal proceedings without a lawyer?’).

Private funding

The most common way for most employers to conduct claims in an employment tribunal is to pay a firm of solicitors with experience in employment law to deal with matters for them. In complex matters (and for advocacy during the hearing) many solicitors will instruct a barrister. The solicitor’s costs will include time charged for each hour spent on the case. In addition, disbursements will be payable, usually for expenses and the barrister’s fees (if applicable).

The type of funding arrangement will vary between solicitors and from case-to-case. The solicitors may require payment based on an hourly charge-out rate, or offer a form of fee agreement.

Contingency fees vs conditional fees

A ‘contingency fee agreement’ is a generic term describing arrangements between solicitors and clients, where payment is linked to the result of the litigation or arbitration. This arrangement would not be allowed in the civil or appeal courts.

Contingency fees are not the same as conditional fee agreements (more commonly known as 'no win, no fee'), where the solicitor charges a base fee plus a ‘success fee’ unrelated to the damages recovered.

A ‘conditional fee agreement’ is permitted only in certain limited circumstances. To enter into a valid conditional fee agreement, strict requirements about notification to the other parties must be complied with.

Contingency fees and/or damages-based agreements

Steps have been taken to protect employees and employers from unfair fee arrangements.

The Damages Based Agreements Regulations 2010 restrict solicitors’ ability to enter into contingency fee agreements (that is, a percentage of the award) in employment claims. Specifically, the regulations:

  • make any damages-based or contingency fee agreement unenforceable, unless it complies with certain specific requirements
  • control the costs and expenses payable and set requirements concerning the reasons for setting the fee at the agreed level
  • ensure the client is well-informed before the agreement is signed
  • make the agreement unenforceable if the formalities are not met, and the solicitor will be unable to recover their percentage
  • require the client to be informed about other methods of available funding
  • require the client to be informed about reviews of the costs and expenses incurred
  • impose a maximum costs percentage (35% of damages, including VAT)
  • allow a claimant to terminate the damages-based agreement at any time, and limits their costs liability to the reasonable costs actually incurred (at an hourly rate) for work undertaken.

Legal expenses insurance

Some employers and some individuals may have legal expenses insurance. Some of these policies do cover employment claims and great care should be taken to ensure the extent of any such policies.

Public funding, trade unions and free representation

Employers faced with employment tribunal claims have no access to legal aid or public funding in England and Wales.

A very small number of employees (who must qualify on low income grounds) may have limited public funding for an initial legal consultation. For employment cases in the civil or appeal courts there may again be limited public funding for qualifying individuals. There is also limited legal aid in Scotland.

If employees are a member of a trade union at the time their employment ceased, the trade union may pay for a solicitor. Other organisations, like the Free Representation Unit or the Equality and Human Rights Commission, may help to fund or prepare appropriate cases.

The employer will not be able to claim its legal costs in most cases. Each side usually bears its own costs. In unusual cases the tribunal can make:

  • costs orders in favour of legally represented parties
  • preparation time orders in favour of represented parties, and
  • wasted costs orders against either the employer's or employee’s representatives.

Costs may be claimed if, for example, the tribunal considers a claim to be so weak it should not have been brought or – at the extreme end – if an employee is found to have lied on their claim form.

  • Usually, a costs order is made only if the receiving party is legally represented.
  • Costs may be awarded if a party or his representative acted vexatiously, abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably, in bringing or conducting of proceedings or that the proceedings were misconceived.
  • Costs may also be awarded if a party has not complied with an order or practice direction or is responsible for postponing a hearing.
  • When considering whether to make a costs order the ability of the paying party to pay must be taken into account (including the backing of a trade union).
  • If proceedings were misconceived or conducted unreasonably the tribunal has a wide discretion as to the amount of costs to be awarded.
  • The tribunal can require a detailed costs assessment in a County Court under the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR).
  • The power to award costs includes power to award costs against a party whose conduct has resulted in an unnecessary hearing.

Deposit orders may be available to identify claims at an early stage with little prospect of success. Deposit orders can discourage the pursuit of the claim by requiring a deposit to be paid, and by creating a risk of costs if the claim fails (Hemdan v Ishmail (2016)).

Payments for preparation time are for the amount of time spent working on the case by a non-represented party, including its employees or advisers, but not the time spent at the final hearing. An employment tribunal will assess whether the claim is reasonable and proportionate, and multiply the time spent by the current hourly rate.

Examples

Although costs orders are still very rare, employers should not be held to ransom by employees with vexatious or unfounded claims. In extreme cases the tribunal may make a significant costs order in the employer’s favour. One example is Khan v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council (2007). The tribunal emphasised that it is not consistent with the proper administration of the law that a party escape financial liability for causing their opponents to incur very substantial and unnecessary legal costs in defending wholly unmeritorious proceedings – especially when the proceedings had been unreasonably prolonged by the way the employee conducted their case. The employee had wilfully resisted and disregarded all attempts by the tribunal to assist in putting his case in a proportionate and realistic manner, and provoked the striking out of his claim by a conscious decision not to attend any further hearings of the tribunal.

In a cost decision, the employment tribunal had referred to the employee as “the most obdurate, recalcitrant and openly contemptuous party that any of [the panel has] had to deal with” before ordering him to pay around £80,000 legal costs and additional wasted costs.

If a tribunal finds that a central allegation in a claim is a lie then the tribunal should conclude that the claimant has acted unreasonably and make an order for costs (Daleside Nursing Home Ltd v Mathew (2009)).

Lying does not automatically justify a costs award, however, especially if the lies are not central to the case. In Yerrakalva v Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council (2010). The tribunal found that she had lied twice in the proceedings for race and disability discrimination. The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that the costs order against her should be revoked. Although she had lied and such behaviour was unreasonable conduct, this was different to Daleside. No loss had been caused by the lies, and they were not central to the claim. The tribunal should to take into account the nature, gravity and effect of the dishonest conduct in deciding whether to award costs.

Costs can even be awarded against a solicitor or other representative personally. For example, in Jackson v Cambridgeshire County Council (2011) an initial order for wasted costs of £16,037.04 against the representative was later overturned. The representative was a solicitor specialising in banking law and a cousin of one of the employees.

The solicitor had complained that the Employment Judge hearing the case was biased and had unlawfully recorded the hearing, and then denied having done so. He also engaged in correspondence described as “arrogant and bullying” and posted material attacking the employer on Facebook. His conduct had been unreasonable, but wasted costs orders will not usually be made against a representative who is acting on a not-for-profit basis such as a relative, trade union representative, Citizens Advice Bureau adviser or representative from voluntary bodies (also see Wilsons Solicitors v Johnson (2011)).

An employer can recover costs in respect of time spent by an in-house solicitor (see Wiggins Alloys Ltd v Jenkins (1981) and Ladak v DRC Locums Ltd (2014)).

Depending on the type of claim, successful employees can expect the employment tribunal to order some or all of the following:

  • Compensation (may include an amount for injury to feelings and aggravated damages depending on the claim)
  • Recommendation
  • Reinstatement (restoring a person to the same job they were in before dismissal)
  • Re-engagement (being offered a different job or the same job, but without continuity of service)
  • An additional compensation award for failure to consider reinstatement/re-engagement
  • Equal pay audits
  • A declaration as to the rights of the parties
  • Financial penalties.

Compensation is the most commonly sought remedy. Lost earnings and fringe benefits, past and future, are calculated. Employment tribunals may increase or decrease compensation awards by up to 25% for an unreasonable failure to comply with the Acas Code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

In discrimination cases, compensation can include injury to feelings and aggravated or exemplary damages. Unlike unfair dismissal, there is no legal limit on the amount of compensation that can be awarded.

See also ‘What does compensation for unfair dismissal consist of?’ in our Unfair dismissal Q&As.

The power to recommend actions an employer should take to remedy acts of discrimination or harassment is rarely used.

The employment tribunal can only make a recommendation which directly benefits an individual claimant. In practice, as the claimant has often resigned or been dismissed, no recommendation can be made because future improvements by the employer would not benefit the claimant.

Reinstatement is also rarely ordered. It puts the employee back in the same job they were dismissed from, and revives the original contract as if the dismissal had never happened.

Re-engagement means taking the employee back, but not necessarily in the same job. This remedy is like a new start, as it breaks continuity of service. The employment tribunal has to consider the employee’s wishes, as well as whether it is practical for the employer to comply with the order. Employers can’t be forced to comply with re-employment orders, so instead additional compensation of between 26 and 52 weeks’ pay can be ordered.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, claimants who know their former employers won’t want them back often threaten to apply for re-employment so as to negotiate larger settlement offers.

Compensation in equal pay cases can differ from that in other discrimination cases. For example, where an employment tribunal finds that there has been an equal pay breach it will usually order the employer to carry out an equal pay audit (see ‘What are equal pay audits and what guidance is available?’ in our Equal pay Q&As.).

Where a breach of workers’ rights with “aggravating features” is found, employment tribunals have the power to order employers to pay a financial penalty of between £100 and £5,000.

There is no upper limit on the amount of compensation for discrimination that an employment tribunal can award. Although the average awards are usually relatively modest, there have been some extreme examples – usually where the employee has proved that they’ll never work in their chosen field again – of awards in the millions of pounds.

The basic rule is that once a discrimination claim has been established, the tribunal will consider compensation based on what is ‘just and equitable.’

Only losses that are foreseeable as a consequence of the treatment are recoverable.

Financial loss covers loss incurred from the date of the discriminatory act to the date of the remedies hearing, and losses that will be incurred after the hearing. If the discriminatory act was a dismissal, ‘losses’ will include net wages, overtime, pension contributions, and all contractual benefits. The employee must mitigate their losses by trying to obtain alternative employment.

Most discrimination claims will also attract an award for injury to feelings. Decisions are based on the effect of the discriminatory treatment on the particular complainant. The guidelines set out in Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police (No 2) (2003) and Da’Bell v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (2009) set out the appropriate award bands for injury to feelings:

Top band £18,000 – £30,000: Most serious (for example, where there has been a lengthy campaign against the employee).

Middle band £6,000 – 18,000: Serious, but not qualifying for an award in the top band.

Lower band £500 – £6,000: Less serious (for example, an isolated incident).

Complications can arise with injury to feelings compensation if there are two forms of discrimination. In Jumard v Clwyd Leisure Ltd (2008) the claimant established both race and disability discrimination. The Employment Appeal Tribunal held that the employment tribunal should have considered the two separately. If different forms of discrimination arise from the same acts, the injury to feelings may be assessed together. If there were different discriminatory acts, the injury to feelings must be assessed separately. The total figure must be proportionate and not involve double recovery.

In particularly serious cases, compensation for injury to feelings may also include an added element of aggravated damages.

Tribunals must consider interest on an award. The Employment Tribunals (Interest on Awards in Discrimination Cases) Regulations 1996 (SI 1996/2803) sets out how such interest will be calculated.

Awards of compensation in discrimination cases can be increased or decreased by up to 25% for non-compliance with the Acas Code on disciplinary and grievance procedures (see the Discipline and grievance procedures Q&As).

There will normally be a 10% general damages increase on injury to feelings awards in the employment tribunal, as well as in the civil courts.

Other remedies and penalties

Employment tribunals have had the power to order an employer that has breached a worker’s rights to pay a financial penalty of between £100 and £5,000 where the employment tribunal is of the opinion that the breach has one or more ‘aggravating features’.

As well as compensation for past and future losses, employment tribunals have the power to make declarations or recommendations. These are relatively rare (see ‘What types of remedies and compensation are available?’).

Large compensation awards

One of the largest claims in an employment tribunal in recent years was an award of £4.5m compensation to consultant Dr Eva Michalak for sex and race discrimination and unfair dismissal. (Michalak v Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust [2011]).

Dr Michalak’s colleagues at the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS trust actively campaigned to get rid of her while she was on maternity leave. As a result, she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, nightmares, persistent anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms (including suicidal thoughts), and the extent of her trauma was such that she would never be able to return to her work as a doctor.

The compensation was awarded against the trust, and personally against its medical director, consultant physician, and human resources manager.

A race discrimination claim which shows the different elements of possible compensation is Chaudhary v British Medical Association (2002). The claimant was awarded £814,877.41 for race discrimination.

The figure was made up of:

  • loss of earnings: £625,000
  • injury to feelings for indirect discrimination: £15,000
  • compensation for illness: £15,000
  • victimisation: £7,500
  • aggravated damages: £5,000
  • costs (there were several sets of proceedings with more to follow): £94,367.11
  • interest: £53,010.30.

Note the high level of legal costs, which are usually irrecoverable in the employment tribunal.

(See also British Medical Association v Chaudhary (2003) and (2007).)

Awards involving unsuccessful job applicants rather than employees tend to be at the other end of the financial spectrum. In Corus Hotels v Woodward (2006) an applicant for a post of hotel receptionist was asked questions about being a single parent and how it would affect her ability to do the job. She was unsuccessful in her application. She won a sex discrimination claim and was initially awarded £525 for loss of earnings and £5,000 compensation for injury to feelings following the guidelines in Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police (see above). The Employment Appeal Tribunal reduced the award to £4,000, as although the interview was crassly sexist the employment tribunal had inflated the award on its own feelings about the hotel’s conduct. Larger employers should not be punished by paying higher compensation awards.

In Fletcher v Ministry of Defence (2009) a former soldier who had been successful in the tribunal had her compensation payment drastically reduced by the Employment Appeal Tribunal. She was originally awarded £186,895.52 after winning her claims for sex and sexual orientation discrimination, victimisation and sexual harassment. She had resigned from the Army after ten years’ service following unwanted sexual advances from a senior sergeant. Her original compensation included some £30,000 for injured feelings, £20,000 for aggravated damages, £50,000 for exemplary damages and £65,558 in respect of lost earnings and pension entitlement.

However the Employment Appeal Tribunal reduced these awards by a total of over £60,000, on the basis that the tribunal had double counted the figures and failed to have regard to the total award for non-pecuniary loss. Although the Army had failed to provide or operate procedures for redress of the complaints, its conduct did not warrant an award of exemplary damages.

The current role of Acas in tribunal proceedings can be summarised as:

  • early conciliation (see ‘What is Acas early conciliation?’)
  • post-claim conciliation
  • binding written settlement agreements (see ‘What is a settlement agreement?’)
  • issuing codes of practice and providing a helpline service.

Post-claim conciliation

One of the main roles of Acas is to try and seek conciliated settlements both before and after a tribunal claim has been presented. If the early conciliation service does not avert a claim, then once it has been commenced, Acas officers automatically receive copies of the completed claim (ET1) and response (ET3) forms to enable them to contact both parties again with a view to trying to achieve a negotiated settlement (ending the need for a tribunal hearing).

A conciliation officer will try to promote a settlement between the parties, if the claimant (usually the employee) and respondent (usually the employer) both ask for this assistance.

If there is no such request, the conciliation officer will still try to promote settlement if they consider that there is a reasonable prospect of successfully negotiating one.

Once a claim is submitted, post-claim conciliation through Acas is still available even if early conciliation has failed.

Acas can play an important role in promoting a settlement, especially when dealing with unrepresented claimants.

Anything an employer says to an Acas officer is likely to be repeated to the other side, but it will not be admissible in any tribunal proceedings unless the employer consents to it being admitted.

It is worth noting that in unfair dismissal claims that the conciliation officer may seek to promote the reinstatement or re-engagement of the employee, or an associated employer on terms the conciliation officer considers equitable. If the employee does not wish to be reinstated, or this is not practicable, a financial settlement can be promoted. The same options for reinstatement or re-engagement apply in early conciliation cases of unfair dismissal as well.

Binding written agreement

Most Acas settlements are concluded by way of a binding written agreement known as a COT3.

If an Acas officer has not been involved in the settlement discussions they will not simply 'rubber stamp' an agreement which the parties have concluded. Therefore to protect their position the employer should enter into a compromise agreement (renamed settlement agreement from summer 2013) with the employee (see What is a compromise or settlement agreement?).

Employers should be careful when discussing settlement terms with an Acas officer if there are any doubts about whether to accept the settlement terms. This is because a settlement is binding once terms have been agreed with the Acas officer, even if only agreed orally. In the case Allma Construction v Bonner [2010] a binding compromise was concluded through Acas, although nothing had been produced in writing and all matters usually dealt with in Acas settlements had not been expressly agreed.

An automatic dismissal of proceedings should occur where the parties to an Acas settlement have confirmed in writing their understanding that the proceedings covered by the settlement will be dismissed and the claimant has withdrawn the claim.

If the parties reach a settlement via Acas shortly before the hearing, the Acas officer will normally contact the tribunal to advise it that a settlement has been reached and that it can vacate the hearing. It is sensible, however, to check with the Acas officer that they will do this, especially if the hearing is fast approaching.

Codes of practice and helpline service

In addition to its conciliatory role, Acas also has a preventative role as a result of the power to issue guidance codes and operate a helpline.

Acas has provides a helpline service with opening hours from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm Monday to Friday and 9.00 am to 1.00 pm on Saturday.

The Acas Code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures has an important role. A failure to follow the Code will not, in itself, make an employer liable. However, tribunals will take the revised code into account and adjust any awards made in relevant cases by up to 25 per cent for the employer’s unreasonable failure to comply with any provision of the code. If it is the employee who has failed to comply, then their award may be reduced by 25 per cent.

Arbitration scheme

As a complete alternative to the tribunal process, Acas runs a voluntary arbitration scheme. This provides an alternative, less formal venue for unfair dismissal disputes. It also covers flexible working claims (see Requesting flexible working Q&As).

See also the Discipline and grievance procedures Q&As.

The whole tribunal procedure, including the hearing, is designed to be used by those representing themselves. However, some cases involve such complex issues of employment law that it is prudent to obtain specialist legal advice.

Within the employment tribunal rules there is a mechanism for weeding out weak claims, or claims by those known as ‘vexatious litigants.’ The following options are considered:

  • Mediation or other forms of dispute resolution (see What is Acas early conciliation? and 'What forms of mediation and conciliation are available to employers to help prevent tribunal proceedings?').
  • A preliminary hearing may be requested by either party (usually the employer) or the tribunal may decide to hold one, which may result in a hopeless case being thrown out.
  • A tribunal can make a deposit order as a condition of pursuing a particular allegation or argument. A deposit order may be granted where the employee’s claim or the employer’s defence, or an aspect of it, is relatively weak.

(See also ‘What is the role of an Acas representative?’ and ‘What is Acas early conciliation?’)

Over recent years, various forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) have become widely available in employment and other civil disputes. Wherever possible, tribunals are required to encourage and facilitate the use by the parties of the services of Acas, judicial or other mediation, or other means to resolve their disputes by agreement.

The advantages of ADR include:

  • Minimising or avoiding the stress and expense of tribunal proceedings – some forms of ADR are free.
  • Speedier solutions, as tribunal cases can take many months and some forms of ADR can be concluded in under a month.
  • Lengthy tribunal proceedings can distract senior employees from the workplace.
  • A better understanding of the issues can be reached.
  • Finding solutions on the parties’ own terms.
  • Covering matters that may not be covered in a tribunal judgment, such as references, moves to other departments etc.
  • ADR can happen early, before a permanent breakdown of the employment relationship.
  • May provide confidentiality (most tribunal hearings are public).
  • Voluntary solutions whereby both parties agree to participate in ADR and can change their mind at any time.

The main forms of ADR available for employment disputes include:

  • internal workplace mediation
  • private mediation or conciliation services
  • free Acas pre-claim conciliation
  • arbitration.

Internal workplace mediation is more commonly used by larger employers for less serious matters where the employment is continuing. It can involve the employer’s own trained in-house mediators, HR department, an unbiased manager from a different department, or an external specialist mediator.

A number of firms offer commercial private mediation services. In the vast majority of cases the employer pays for it, although the cost can be split between the parties.

The key points to understand about mediation are that:

  • the mediator does not impose their own solution, but is trained to assist both parties to reach a mutually acceptable solution
  • it’s voluntary, so both the employee and employer must agree to become involved
  • it can take place at any stage in a dispute.

Conciliation is similar to mediation. The primary difference between mediation and conciliation is that in some conciliation cases, the conciliator plays a more active role in resolving the dispute. The conciliator may put forward solutions. In mediation, if no agreement can be reached the process fails.

Arbitration also involves an independent third party, but is different because the arbitrator’s resolution is a legally binding decision. There are very limited grounds for challenging the decision. Usually, appeals can be made only if the arbitrator erred or behaved unreasonably. More information is available from the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.

Whether an employer or an employee can use evidence obtained by a secret recording device in employment tribunal proceedings is a complex question governed by many areas of law including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, The Employment Tribunals (Constitution & Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2004 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Good practice would be to always obtain the consent of both parties to the recording and to sign an agreed transcript.

It is possible for a covert recording to be used as evidence in an employment tribunal hearing, provided it is relevant to the issues, but you should think carefully about the associated risks to privacy, reputation, and wider employee relations.

An employer should try to answer an employee’s questions. From 6 April 2014 onwards the statutory discrimination and equal pay questionnaire procedure was abolished and replaced with informal guidance from Acas. (See the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 which repeals Section 138 of the Equality Act 2010).

Employers need to understand how to respond to employees’ questions relating to an actual or prospective claim. Although the former statutory questionnaire procedure has been replaced with Acas ’informal’ guidance, the employment tribunal can still draw adverse inferences from an employer’s refusal to respond or evasive answers.

Under the informal Acas guidance, there is a six step question process to help employees establish the facts about conduct which they believe to be discriminatory and a template designed to help employees frame questions.

Step 1 - the questioner sets out his or her name and address and that of the person or organisation and others whom he/she thinks may have discriminated against them.

Step 2 - the questioner has to identify which protected characteristics may have been the subject of the unfairness he/she has experienced.

Step 3 - the questioner describes the treatment to which the complaint relates and the circumstances leading up to that treatment, including the date, time, place and number of instances of the treatment.

Step 4 - the questioner needs to specify the type of discrimination that might have occurred.

Step 5 - the questioner sets out why the treatment might be unlawful.

Step 6 - the questioner can ask other appropriate questions about treatment, including statistical information to show how people with this protected characteristic are treated by the employer.

Although the old statutory form of questionnaire has been abolished there is nothing preventing employees from using it when formulating informal questions.

Responding to questions

The Acas guidance contains a three step process for the responder (usually the employer) to consider:

Step 1 - the responder considers if it agrees, agrees in part or disagrees with the description of the treatment the questioner alleges he/she received. The responder should investigate and then set out its version of the events.

Step 2 - the responder can then explain if it consider the treatment was justified. The Acas guidance sets out some situations which may be objective justification. (Employers should be careful when setting out potential justification as only indirect discrimination and age discrimination claims can use the justification arguments).

Step 3 - the responder then needs to consider and answer each question. If a responder thinks some questions are irrelevant or unclear, it can check the purpose of the question.

Importantly if the responder decides not to answer a question, it should explain why.

Procedural points

A timeframe is not given within which employers have to respond. However they should not delay unreasonably in answering. In practice the old eight week time limit is likely to be a helpful indication of an appropriate period.

Acas emphasise that questions about potential discrimination at work should be dealt with seriously and promptly by the employer.

The employer should consider carefully the most appropriate way to respond given the possible implications of any response.

The employer is not under a legal obligation to answer questions. However an employer who refuses to provide appropriate replies may find that the tribunal takes this failure into account when deciding a case. Tribunals can still draw adverse inferences from an employer's refusal to respond or provision of evasive answers.

As employers are not legally required to provide a response unless the tribunal orders them to, some employers may decide to wait to see if the employee pays the non-refundable tribunal fee to commence the claim before responding to the questions. Under the normal tribunal rules of procedure, employees and employers can both raise further and better particulars and ask additional questions and to seek specific disclosure of electronic and paper documents.

The Acas guidance is not as yet a Code of practice. If it becomes a Code rather than guidance, then employers failing to follow it will risk adverse inferences from the employment tribunal. It is likely that larger employers who have greater administrative resources to respond to informal questions will not be looked upon unfavourably if they refuse to respond.

Employees will always need to ask some questions, especially in indirect discrimination cases as they need to show that the employer's provision, criterion or practice (PCP) has a disproportionately adverse impact on them because of their protected characteristic. Statistical information will be needed to establish this, for example, a breakdown of an employer's distribution of employees of a certain age, or race.

Guidance is available on the Acas website.

Yes. This often happens in discrimination claims where the employee can bring the claim against both the employer and another employee who committed the act of discrimination. In addition to naming the employer in any application to employment tribunal, it is common to name the individual perpetrator and join them as parties to proceedings.

An employment tribunal can order that the employer and the employee who committed the act(s) of discrimination are both liable for compensation, so the employee who committed the discriminatory act can be held personally liable. The whole amount of compensation awarded can be recovered from either the employer or the employee who committed the discriminatory act. This is what is meant by ‘joint and several liability.’

Vicarious liability

This legal term covers a number of situations where one person is held responsible for the actions of another person. Employers are often liable for the acts of their employees, provided it can be shown that the acts occurred in the course of employment.

Employers can only avoid vicarious liability for the acts of their employees if they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such acts from occurring. Maintaining an anti-discrimination and equal opportunities policy will reduce the risk of being held vicariously liable for any discriminatory acts committed by its employees.

Settlement agreements (known as compromise agreements until 29 July 2013) are legally binding contracts which are used to end employment on terms agreed with the employee. The main point of them is that the employee makes an enforceable promise not to sue the employer about the matters covered in the agreement. They usually include a payment to the employee by the employer and may also include a reference.

Historically over 70 per cent of tribunal cases settle before the hearing stage is reached. It is possible to settle an employment tribunal claim only by either reaching a formal compromise or settlement agreement (fulfilling section 203 of the Employment Rights Act 1996) or through the actions of an Acas conciliation officer (see ‘What is the role of an Acas representative?’).

See also ‘What should employers know about the Acas Code of practice on settlement agreements?’ and ‘What does the law say about the negotiations leading to termination of employment or settlement agreements?’

In an employment context, ‘without prejudice’ conversations normally arise when negotiating the terms of a settlement agreement. ‘Without prejudice’ means that any statements made during the discussions cannot later be used in a court or tribunal as evidence.

The law says that even where no employment dispute exists, the parties may still initiate, offer and discuss a settlement agreement in the knowledge that their conversations cannot be held against them in any subsequent unfair dismissal claim.

  • Employers can offer settlement agreements before a formal dispute arises without this being used in evidence in an unfair dismissal case.
  • Acas has issued an accompanying Code of practice and non-statutory guidance for use in the context of future settlement agreements.

Failure to follow the Acas code does not, in itself, make an employer liable to proceedings, nor does it automatically lead to an increase in any compensation award made by an employment tribunal. However, employment tribunals will take the code into account when considering relevant cases.

Although it is never completely ‘safe’ to start discussing terms of settlement, employers who follow the rules may initiate conversations in parallel to disciplinary and grievance hearings, but ideally separately from those hearings. If they do, the conversations should comply with:

The following points may be helpful to summarise the position concerning 'without prejudice' discussions between employers and employees:

  • Discussions to promote the settlement of a dispute which are made in good faith are without prejudice and therefore should not be referred to in any subsequent hearings.
  • Discussions should comply with the Acas Code of practice on settlement agreements as well.
  • Just because a document or discussion is labelled without prejudice this is not conclusive; the content of such discussions is crucial.
  • There is no need for litigation to have actually been threatened for there to be a dispute which can attract without prejudice discussions.
  • Referring to, or merging settlement negotiation with grievance hearings is highly risky.
  • It is better to agree the status of the without prejudice discussion meeting in advance of the meeting.
  • Ideally the employee should be given the opportunity to take legal advice before a without prejudice discussion.

Case law examples

The following cases illustrate issues which can arise when discussing terms of settlement with an employee, particularly when a disciplinary or grievance hearing is on-going. The cases were decided before the proposed legislation allowing some discussions to take place whilst minimising the risk of unfair dismissal claims. However this case law remains valid in explaining when negotiations will be 'without prejudice' and when they may not.

The leading case is BNP Paribas v Mezzotero (2004) which demonstrated that if an employer does start settlement discussions in the middle of a grievance (or presumably disciplinary) hearing then the employer is at risk of having anything which was disclosed in the discussion being referred to in front of a subsequent court or tribunal hearing.

However, properly handled such discussions should normally be privileged, if they are with a genuine intention of settling a dispute. In order to retain the secrecy afforded by that without prejudice privilege the discussions should be entirely separate to the resolution of the grievance. It is better to agree the status of the without prejudice discussion meeting in advance, and ideally the employee should be given the opportunity to take legal advice.

The extent to which employers can rely on the 'without prejudice' rule when settling disputes was also considered in the following cases:

In [Brunel University v Webster [2007] the Court of Appeal confirmed that evidence of previous negotiations settling another dispute could be admitted in a subsequent tribunal hearing. The reasons for this were:

  • Settlement negotiations had been referred to at length during the grievance hearing. Consequently, the privilege had been waived.
  • Privilege had also been waived as Brunel University had included documents attached to its ET3 and other documents which referred to the settlement discussions.

In Framlington Group v Barnetson [2007] the Court of Appeal held that the negotiations in that instance were covered by the 'without prejudice' rule. There was a dispute about the employer and employee’s recollection over certain terms of his contract. The employee alleged that he could refer to the discussions in subsequent litigation as there was no dispute when the discussions took place and therefore no without prejudice privilege. The Court of Appeal found that the employer and employee were wrangling over the terms of the employee’s contractual entitlement and that they were therefore genuinely ‘without prejudice’ and could not be referred to in the employee’s witness statement.

In Woodward v Santander UK plc [2010] the Employment Appeal Tribunal emphasised that the 'without prejudice' rule has very rare exceptions. The rule makes evidence of all negotiations genuinely aimed at settlement inadmissible. Only if the rule is being used to mask perjury, blackmail or other clear and unambiguous impropriety will it be possible for there to be an exception to the rule. 'Without prejudice' discussions should not be revealed during tribunal hearings, but if they are revealed by mistake, the information should not affect the tribunal’s order.

In Gallop v Newport City Council [2012] the Employment Appeal Tribunal held that the employment tribunal should not have taken into account the 'without prejudice' negotiations unless the parties had clearly waived privilege. Therefore the employee's compensatory award should not have been reduced.

Whether termination payments are taxable depends upon the circumstances surrounding the payment. The general rule is that employers can pay the first £30,000 of genuine compensation for loss of employment under the settlement agreement tax free, but this will not apply to all payments. Only payments that would not otherwise be chargeable to income tax can be paid free of tax.

Whether a termination payment is taxable or not therefore depends on precisely what the payment is for. Usually any payment should be broken down into its constituent parts, not treated as a single lump sum.

Payments made for work undertaken up to an employee’s termination date are likely to be fully taxable. Whether payments made after this are taxable depends on which category they fall into under the Income Tax Earnings and Pension Act 2003 (ITEPA 2003). The payments may be unfair dismissal compensation, redundancy payments, protective awards, damages for wrongful dismissal and compensation for other statutory claims.

National insurance

Termination payments which are genuine compensation for termination of the employment will be free from National Insurance (NI) under the £30,000 threshold, but tax will be payable on monies over £30,000.

A payment on termination will also be fully taxable if the employee was originally contractually entitled to it under the contract of employment (including salary, benefits and amounts habitually paid by the employer). A careful analysis of the component parts is important to decide which parts are taxable.

Taxable payments

The following sums which may form part of a termination payment are contractual in nature and are generally taxable: All payments made for the period up to the point that the contract of employment ends (such as unpaid salary, wages and benefits accrued to date of termination).

  • Payment in lieu of holiday outstanding
  • Pay in lieu of notice if allowed for in the contract of employment.
  • Habitual pay in lieu of notice paid by the custom and practice of an employer as an automatic response to termination for every departing employee.
  • Payments made if an employee works their notice or is placed on garden leave for the notice period are subject to tax.
  • New restrictive covenants may be needed to prevent an employee from acting in competition, or approaching customers or employees once they have left the employer. These may be entered into on termination because the original contract did not contain such provisions, or the original restrictions were unenforceable. To make these new covenants binding there must be a ‘consideration’ paid, usually a small sum of £100–£200. This payment is fully taxable and liable to NI contributions.
  • Any payments associated with a confidentiality clause.
  • Payments made to compensate for injury to feelings caused by the termination.

Potentially exempt payments

The following sums which may form part of a termination payment are generally non-contractual and not taxable:

  • Compensatory and ex-gratia, non-contractual payments made for loss of office or up to the first £30,000.
  • Pay in lieu of notice which is not allowed for in the contract of employment may currently fall within the £30,000 exemption.
  • Payments made to compensate for injury to feelings following unlawful discrimination before the termination have historically not been taxable, although this appears no longer to be the case (see Moorthy v HMRC (2016), discussed below).
  • Payment on account of a disability or injury.
  • Genuine statutory and contractual redundancy payments up to the £30,000 exemption, although some contractually based redundancy payments might be subject to income tax and NI.
  • Payments made direct into a registered pension scheme are not subject to tax up to the annual and lifetime allowances set for contributions to such pension schemes.
  • Contributions to the cost of special outplacement counseling are not taxable and are often paid directly by the employer and therefore do not count towards the £30,000 exemption.
  • Usually the employer pays the employee’s legal costs directly to the employee’s solicitor which does not count towards the £30,000 exemption, as long as it is only for advice in connection with termination of employment and there is a specific clause in the settlement agreement to that effect.

Case examples

Ex gratia payments

In Publicis Consultants UK Ltd v O'Farrell (2011) the employee's claims included a claim for breach of contract and a claim for pay for the notice period. The employer argued that the ex gratia payment was compensation for the notice period. The EAT held that the ex gratia payment was truly an ex gratia payment, and therefore payment in respect of the notice period remained outstanding.

To avoid doubt, employers should be very careful to specify if they are making a payment in lieu of notice, or paying compensation for breach of contract. If there are any issues surrounding this, ideally a settlement agreement waiving all statutory and contractual claims should be entered into.

Injury to feelings

Problems can arise with payment of tax on injury to feelings compensation that's made when employment ends. In Moorthy v HMRC (2016), a claimant was paid £200,000 by his employer to settle claims of unfair dismissal and age discrimination. The settlement agreement treated £30,000 as being tax exempt under ITEPA 2003. Tax was also deducted at basic rate from the £170,000 balance before it was paid.

The claimant indicated on his annual tax return that this tax should be repaid to him by HMRC. The key issue to be decided was whether a significant part of the award related to injury to feelings, and could therefore be excluded from tax.

The tribunal held that the payment was connected with the termination of employment, so the normal tax rules did apply. Payments for medical injuries to an employee may not be taxable, but that should not include awards for injury to feelings.

In any event, the government has announced that termination payment rules will be tightened with effect from April 2018. There will still be tax exemptions for injury or disability payments, but these will not apply to compensation for injury to feelings.

Legal costs

Following the conclusion of a compromise or settlement agreement the employer often pays a contribution towards the employee’s legal costs direct to the employee’s solicitor under the terms of the agreement. Such costs will not be subject to income tax (see the concession in section 413A of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 and the Enactment of Extra-Statutory Concessions Order 2011 (SI 2011/1037)). Employers should note that these regulations do not appear to cover settlement agreements in discrimination cases (under the Equality Act 2010 ) or legal fees paid which may be paid in connection with an Acas conciliation. However, following its previous practice in such cases, HMRC should not charge tax on payment of legal fees in these situations either.

Employers uncertain on the tax position can get advance clearance on the payment from HMRC.

Future changes

With effect from April 2018, the government will tighten the termination payment rules. The changes will remove the distinction between contractual and non-contractual payments and will include:

  • All payments in lieu of an employee's notice entitlement, whether there was an express PILON clause in the employment contract or not, will be treated as earnings rather than a 'termination payment' and will be fully chargeable to income tax and employer/employee NICs.
  • The first £30,000 of any termination payment will remain exempt from income tax and all NICs.
  • Employer NICs will be due on payments above £30,000 to correspond with income tax.
  • Exemptions for injury or disability payments will be retained, but they will not apply in cases of injured feelings (recognised psychological injuries or disabilities will still be exempt).
  • Certain legal costs will remain exempt.
  • Termination payments may become less attractive to employees from a tax perspective. The previous tax exemption has encouraged employers and employees to settle disputes amicably. Termination costs will probably increase overall because all of an employee's post-employment notice and bonus income will be taxable as earnings.
  • Non-contractual, tax-free PILONs will no longer be available. For high earners, employer NICs on termination payments over £30,000 will need to be factored into settlement negotiations.
  • More information, including the latest consultation paper and report on termination payments, is available from GOV.UK.

Non-prescriptive guidance from the Presidents of the Employment Tribunals in England and Wales and Scotland is sometimes made available, and sometimes practice directions are issued by the courts and tribunals. These support the relevant rules and set out what the courts and tribunals expect. The guidance is not binding on the parties, but tribunals do have to have regard to it.

The area of employment tribunals, settlement and compromise has undergone significant changes over recent years. The previous changes are dealt with in the relevant related Q&As, and include the introduction of fees to lodge and pursue employment tribunal claims, Acas early conciliation and fines for employers. (see 'What is Acas early conciliation? and What are the fines and penalties?').

Tribunal fees

The mostly likely on-going area of change relates to tribunal fees. Following Unison's challenge in the case R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017], the Supreme Court decided in July 2017 that the tribunal fee regime was unlawful and the fees were abolished. The Supreme Court's ruling only related to the fee regime established in 2013 and does not mean that any employment tribunal fees are unlawful.

A revised fees regime is, therefore, likely to be implemented at some stage but this will presumably take some time. There would have to be a consultation to ensure that the fees are not discriminatory and are set at an appropriate level to maintain employees’ access to justice.

Some clues as to what a new fee system could look like can be found in previous 2015 and 2016 reviews which considered the impact of tribunal fees. House of Commons committees previously proposed reductions in tribunal fees, and made a number of wider recommendations, including:

  • removing the distinction between Type A and Type B claims
  • increasing the financial thresholds for fee remission
  • giving special consideration to maternity or pregnancy discrimination claims
  • reviewing the three-month time limit for bringing most claims.

The Government did not act on these recommendations in its previous review but may do so in the future. Any new tribunal fees legislation would be politically contentious, and may not happen until after Brexit.

Civil courts structure review

A longer term review of the entire civil courts structure in England and Wales, undertaken by Lord Justice Briggs, was published in July 2016.

The recommendations which may affect employment law included integrating the tribunal system into the structure of the civil courts. The President of the Employment Tribunal has previously been in favour of a new specialist Employment and Equality Court to sit within the existing court system.

Brexit

The legislation and case law on tribunals and settlements is mostly not derived from the EU. Therefore, these procedures are unlikely to be directly affected by Brexit. However, a small minority of employees involved in employment law cases have subsequently raised arguments that the proceedings have been a breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which includes the right to a fair trial. During the Conservative leadership campaign, Theresa May said she would not take the UK out of the ECHR, which suggests the Article 6 right may remain.

For information on the implications of Brexit for employment law and more generally, see the range of relevant resources in our dedicated Brexit hub.

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