Q: What is stressful, time consuming and expensive?
A: An Employment Tribunal hearing.
You may be wondering about my out of the blue answer, and justly so. I am convinced that an Employment Tribunal Hearing can be one of the more stressful situations you can come across, and this isn’t some passing observation. I was actually a witness in such a hearing, and I got to know the ins and outs of the whole process. You are probably not familiar with an Employment Tribunal Hearing (Although anyone can see them), and that’s why I am here to break down the process for you.
My involvement with the case didn’t start with me being a witness. In fact I was the lead investigating officer on a case of gross misconduct against one of my client’s employees. In fact, I was knee deep in related documents and was interviewing witnesses at that time to actually check whether there was a case to be made. I found the evidence quite compelling (Though not decisive), and informed my client, and they had a disciplinary hearing which resulted in the employee being summarily dismissed. The decision continued to be upheld in an appeal, which resulted in the employee contacting the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service for early conciliation.
The employee’s demands were not agreed upon by my client’s company, and all negotiations fell apart, leading to an Unfair Dismissal case that had its first hearing in early 2015. Due to me being an investigating officer in the case, I was asked to appear as a witness.
In the months before the hearing, the company’s lawyers dropped off a surprise: Two huge bundles of documents that I had to familiarize myself with, since they were to be presented to the judge. I had my work cut out for me. In addition to working through this pile of documents, I had to work on my witness statement, which had to favor the company while being the truth (I actually had to swear a legal oath involving the lines ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, so you can imagine how serious the whole thing was.)
Indeed, these two tasks alone took two whole days, and we hadn’t even entered the meat of the proceedings: The Court.
On the day of the hearing, I set out early in order to reach the Court in time. Tribunal Hearings, contrary to what the name might suggest, actually involve a proper court with a qualified Judge and due process being followed. Very rarely are three-person panels appointed, and for cases like ours, a lone judge presides over us.
What surprised me was that the building where it was all supposed to go down was nothing remarkable. I was running around in circles looking for it, and then I realized I had been driving around the building itself. Outside, there was a small queue of people and some even had small suitcases. The whole thing could pass off as a scene at some holiday destination if it were not for their formal suits. We were allowed through at 9AM, instructed to wear identification badges at all times.
I waited along with the company’s other witnesses and the lawyers, in order to revise what he had to do. Witnesses of the Defendant and the Claimant would come first and second respectively, with all witnesses requiring to sign the witness statement on the witness table in front of the judge. Then, the witnesses had to truthfully answer questions posed by the Claimant’s attorneys.
My biggest mistake was assuming that my job would be done before the end of the day, and that’ll be that. It went on a lot longer and was a lot tougher than I ever imagined.
We all watched occasional Courtroom Dramas on Television, and going by them, we would expect lawyers to be eyeballing and intimidating you every step of the way. While the actual behavior wasn’t like that, the intimidation was there, whether intended or not. It was induced by the calm yet endless stream of questions from the Claimant that was downright unnerving and exhausting. It wouldn’t end there. If we hadn’t done a fine job up on the stand, the defendant’s lawyers would come in to ask questions to save the day.
The process was so time-consuming that it took a whole day to get to the first witness, which was a stark difference from the minutes I gave to each witness
The next day came with my turn on the witness stand. The Claimant’s representatives’ sole purpose was to make the other side look bad. Any evidence be brought up had to be undermined from their perspective, and so the job called for over-analyzing every single detail, and using it against us. I was asked to support my claims, justify them and made me question myself. It was that relentless. A single word could bring the whole thing crashing down. Leading questions, the things I witness, the words I used, nothing was left our.
The questions were so detailed that I didn’t know answers to some of them, and I felt as if I was lying to myself. That’s what a day in court does to you. It makes you doubt yourselves.
By the evening, I was an absolute mess, and I didn’t think before answering questions. I may well have jeopardized the case, and it does goes to show that being in Court isn’t as easy as it is touted to be. I was later free to go, but felt a bit sorry for the other witnesses who had to wait days just to get grilled like that.
It doesn’t tale a genius to figure out who would win the case before the judgment is actually announced. However, while it legally would be a win, financially, it won’t be that big of a win with the legal fees alone eclipsing the win. Lot of time too would have been wasted for what amounts to essentially nothing.
Last resort option
Before the hearing, I had gone to a related seminar, where an employment solicitor gave me some very important advice: A Tribunal Hearing should be a last option, and mutual settlements are the best way to settle any disputes. Of course, you can take the chances and take your employee up in Court, and you may very well win. But you are sacrificing significant time and money towards a small win, and in the long run, a settlement is the much better way to go. You need to choose what is best for your business, and if you have to sacrifice a bit for your previous employees in order to move forward, so be it.
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