What is an employment tribunal?

Bodies known as 'employment tribunals' deal with most work-related legal claims. Until 1998, these were known as 'industrial tribunals'. Employment tribunals operate in England, Wales and Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the system is similar, but the tribunals are called 'fair employment tribunals'.

These tribunals are specialist employment 'courts'. A tribunal comprises up to three people. The employment judge will be legally qualified, and there may be two lay members, one of whom has been chosen as an employee representative and the other as an employer representative.

As a panel, all members must exercise impartiality, but the lay members will be expected to bring their employment experience to bear when judging the facts of the case.

Many types of cases, including claims for unpaid wages, holiday pay, redundancy pay, interim relief and unfair dismissal, can be heard by an employment judge sitting alone.

The judge has the discretion to order that the claim be heard by a full panel of members, but in practice full panel hearings for these types of claim are increasingly rare. 

It is worth noting that although a claim for unfair dismissal for a trade union-related reason can be heard by a judge alone, a claim for 'detriment' on account of trade union activity must be heard by a full panel of three tribunal judges.

Discrimination claims must always be heard by a full panel of three judges.

The tribunals are serviced by regional offices, which process the claims and arrange for the hearings.

Tribunals were originally set up to provide a relatively cheap, speedy and informal means of settling employment rights disputes between employees and employers. While they are still less formal than civil courts, they have become more legalistic and formal as the law has become more complex.

There is no longer a fee to access an employment tribunal, as of July 2017, when a union-backed case at the Supreme Court ruled charging for access to tribunals was unlawful.

Tribunal claims still play an important role where they establish an important point of legal principle, or where many workers share the same terms and conditions. Some of the most important union-backed tribunal claims in recent years – for example regarding the calculation of holiday pay, or the employment status of workers in the so-called 'gig economy', falsely described as 'self-employed' – have the potential to benefit thousands of workers.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.