This is no 'get rich quick' scheme

Last week, the president of the Law Society accused our industrial tribunals of collaborating in a "racket". This accusation, if true, would be a serious indictment of our system of justice. Fortunately, it is not true, indeed it is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of the issues and presents a deeply distorted picture.

Martin Mears claimed that "some tribunals have allowed themselves to be hijacked (all too willingly, I fear) by the discrimination industry".

He gave three examples of race and sex discrimination awards, described them as "abuses" and proposed that the bodies which "encourage these preposterous applications" – the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and the Commission for Racial Equality – should "have their wings clipped".

This is strong and heady rhetoric. I prefer to let the facts speak for themselves.

Fewer than 2 per cent of cases registered in the industrial tribunals concern race discrimination, fewer than 3 per cent concern sex discrimination and less than 25 per cent of each actually go forward to a full hearing.

This is not my idea of "hijacking" the system.

Now, the cost. The average race discrimination award is still below £3,500, while sex discrimination awards are even lower, at an average figure of £3,000. Martin Mears singles out the Ministry of Defence awards for pregnancy dismissal for particular opprobrium. These are, on average, no more than £11,000.

They reflect a one-off situation. The awards represent lost wages for a lengthy period of tenure and loss of pension rights, plus compensation for interest and injury to feelings, which could date back as far as 1978.

Therefore, the idea that anybody could think they had hit upon a fail-safe get-rich-quick racket in making a discrimination claim in a tribunal, is patently untrue. It also ignores the human cost involved in pursuing these claims.

Nonetheless, whatever the size of the awards, there is a clear lesson for employers – it does not pay to discriminate.

Losing a case at a tribunal costs money in terms of both hard cash and by a waste of time, resources and the negative publicity that often arises.

That is why the Equal Opportunities Commission is increasingly being approached by employers for advice and support in complying with the law.

Last year, enquiries from employers to the EOC about equal opportunities policies increased by over 30 per cent from the previous year. Employers recognise the inefficiencies and business costs of discrimination and 500 employers have now joined the EOC's Equality Exchange network to receive up-to-the-minute advice on good practice and legal developments. They know the best way to avoid an award against them is not to discriminate in the first place.

The reality is that our society has decided that it will not tolerate sex or race discrimination and has enshrined this in law.

However, discrimination claimants are not entitled to legal aid for representation in tribunals. Part of the EOC's statutory task is to assist men and women enforce these legal rights and redress the imbalance that would otherwise exist for individuals who are fighting alone.

Far from "encouraging" applications for assistance, regrettably we have always had to turn away many more applicants than we assist.

Last year, for example, we had 43,000 enquiries from members of the public for advice and assistance. However, our limited resources enabled us to provide formal legal assistance to around only 7 per cent of those.

The reality is that the EOC continues to represent excellent value for money with a grant-in-aid of £6 million, equating to just 11p per head of the adult population per year.

The president's attack on the tribunals was equally unjustified. They are part of our excellent system of accessible and impartial justice for all. The chair of tribunals is a lawyer, and the majority of them are solicitors. Tribunals apply the same principles as the courts in calculating financial loss. They deserve our support for the invaluable service both to employers and to individuals.

The president has accepted my invitation to visit the EOC. I hope that after his visit, we can make common cause in fighting against in justice.

Write to: The Editor, The Lawyer, 50 Poland Street, London W1V 4AX, Fax 0171-734 0534