21 January 2002
Listing. Aren't ya sick of it? The days of waiting six months for that part-heard hearing to reconvene are gradually passing. Floating is the new black. Why is it that some tribunals think that it is acceptable for a public service to list more cases for hearing than can be heard in one day? And it is not just once in a while, but every day of every week. It is what we discrimination lawyers like to call a continuing policy or practice, one that, I can't help noticing, is not pursued by the courts service. It is a practice that is needlessly costly and inconvenient to all parties involved. But the real damage is to the image of the Employment Tribunal Service (ETS) in the eyes of the occasional users of its service, namely the majority of ordinary employees and employers who rarely enter its dreary doors.
What strange theories explain this practice, theories that were developed during idle hours in tawdry waiting rooms. Some say that it all has to do with massaging the statistics for the time-to-hearing targets - after all, it's all a question of what you mean by unemployed, sorry, I meant hearing.
My own favourite hypothesis is that it is a hidden part of the Department of Trade and Industry's agenda to encourage alternative dispute resolution. The barons may have forced King John to concede that justice would not be delayed, but the ETS hastens to make no such concession. The floating case can facilitate the settlement of the dispute between the parties, contribute to the efficient operation of the tribunal, and probably enhance the general level of harmony in the kingdom. True enough, I have settled many cases while waiting for the tribunal that never arrives. Yet sometimes, like Tony Hancock, I wonder if the Magna Carta really did die in vain.
A top tip is to make a fuss. Some tribunals have a few chairmen tucked away at the back who are only let out after dark. If you complain enough, you may be lucky enough to be allocated one of these. But then the correspondence to the tribunal doesn't get answered, so other users suffer in the end.
A marginally less confrontational approach is to go to the reception counter and ask for some of the printed complaint forms that are often kept out of sight. Then cheerfully distribute them to the parties in the waiting room who are also floating, inviting them to submit a complaint. Once I got so bored that I filled in the complaint form, photocopied it in the copy-shop next door and handed the now completed forms to my fellow floaters, enjoining them to sign them and "stick that in their suggestion box" - the tribunal's suggestion box that is.
I applaud the practice of those tribunals (for example, Watford) that have the courage to ring the parties at short notice to tell them that the case cannot be heard as no tribunal is available. Of course, this is irritating on the eve of a hearing, but it is far less annoying and costly for the clients than actually travelling to the tribunal and waiting for the same result.
Just once in my experience, a chairman called all the parties in at lunchtime after a morning of waiting and explained that we could not be heard. He apologised for the inconvenience and explained for the benefit of the parties why there was a problem. By this simple act of courtesy, everyone was much happier to accept the wasted time and money. At least the lay clients on both sides understood that the chairman was actually concerned about their treatment. That is public service. It was the Brighton Tribunal.
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