Fairness at work to boost workload

Janet Gaymer, head of employment, Simmons and Simmons

Georgina Keane, head of employment of law, Richards Butler

Sarah Keeble, partner, Manches & Co

Commercial employers fear the Employment Relations Bill – now at committee stage – will cause them major financial and managerial headaches, because of increased trade union recognition and the raising of unfair dismissal compensation from £12,000 to £50,000.

But for lawyers, the Fairness at Work Bill will create a bigger money pot, as it could mean employees putting up a tougher fight and making more trips to the tribunal.

Janet Gaymer, head of the employment department at Simmons & Simmons, says: "Lawyers will see an increase in both work and stress, but I'm not convinced there will be an initial rush of cases."

Instead, she believes the higher compensation limits will be used to add leverage to negotiations.

"In fact, there are few cases at the moment that actually net the maximum £12,000 limit," Gaymer comments.

For her, the Bill's potential to extend protection rights to people not previously covered, could be a rich and interesting source of work. It could also bring some surprises.

"For example, members of the clergy will be brought under the realm of employment law," she explains.

While Gaymer doubts the suggestion that this will have a retrospective impact, she recognises it will open up new avenues of work. "For lawyers, dealing with trade unions will be an evolutionary experience," according to Gaymer.

Under the forthcoming Act, businesses with 20 or more employees will have to recognise a trade union where 40 per cent of eligible workers vote for it.

Gaymer points out that this means some younger lawyers "will be forced to read some books they never thought they would have to look at".

Georgina Keane, head of employment law at Richards Butler, agrees lawyers dealing with unions for the first time will face a "steep learning curve".

She says: "Many young lawyers will not have the background on picketing and striking, or the knowledge of how to handle it."

Keane believes the new Act will create a great deal more work for solicitors. But for employees, she adds: "There is a lot more worth fighting for."

Contrary to Gaymer, Keane argues there will be more tribunals. "There is going to be an enormous effect on the disciplinary tribunals," she says.

Keane alleges claims have risen by tens of thousands since the early 1990s, and that with the advent of fundamental changes following the Woolf reforms, employees will have a realistic way to fight for unfair dismissal.

However, she says City firms are still reluctant to act on a no win, no fee basis. "It may reduce the number of City firms working for applicants."

Keane says many areas of the Bill need clarifying: "It is in the lap of gods."

Sarah Keeble, a partner in the employment law group at Manches & Co, says that the Government has behaved unfairly by not putting more specific detail in the Bill.

"It [the Government] has had plenty of time to produce a Bill," she claims.

Keeble says: "Clients seeking advice are being told it is too early to make changes to their employment policy. I hate it when I cannot give the client the details they need."

And she agrees that City firms will try to resist working on a no win, no fee basis.

But, Keeble says the advantage of this is that no win, no fee could stop important cases getting to the tribunal stage anyway.

"The Bill is good news for the unions. Maybe it is not as good as they might have expected, but it means they are likely to get recognition, which will have a knock-on effect for lawyers, who will have to learn how to deal with trade disputes."