EMPLOYMENT lawyers have predicted a big rise in contested employment hearings if proposals contained in the Government's "Fairness at Work" white paper published last week become law.

Andrew Leaitherland, an employment lawyer at Davies Arnold Cooper's Manchester office, said that a number of the changes had been expected. However, he added that "few thought it would happen this quickly".

The White Paper, expected to be enacted at the end of the year, proposes granting employment rights after one year of employment instead of two.

This includes the right to make unfair dismissal claims and the right to maternity leave, which will be extended to 18 weeks.

The financial cap of £11,000 on unfair dismissal claims is also being removed.

Because unfair dismissal claims already constitute the vast majority of industrial tribunal cases, Leaitherland predicted that the tribunals' workload "will increase substantially".

David Bradley, national head of the human resources group at Dibb Lupton Alsop, agreed with Leaitherland. He said: "This is certain to result in more contested hearings as the stakes will be raised, especially for higher paid employees."

Bradley also highlighted changes to trade union recognition legislation, commenting: "Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will find it difficult to come to terms with the changes, even allowing for the small companies' exemption."

If the white paper becomes law, many SMEs will be required to enter into recognition agreements with trade unions when previously they did not have to.

Bradley said that this requirement would create bureaucracy and increase costs, because companies will have to give employees time off for union activities and also disclose documentation at work to shop stewards.