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Employment Tribunals Can Appoint Litigation Friends – Landmark Decision

It has for a very long time been possible for vulnerable people to be represented in court by litigation friends so that they can have proper access to justice. Now, in a decision of general public importance, that right has for the first time been extended to proceedings before an Employment Tribunal (ET).

The case concerned a woman who had succeeded in automatic unfair dismissal and whistleblowing claims against her former employer. There was medical evidence that she suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and a moderate depressive illness, triggered by traumatic experiences that she had endured during her employment.

A further hearing was due to take place before an ET at which the amount of her compensation would be assessed. Her lawyers argued that, due to her psychiatric problems, she lacked the capacity to conduct the proceedings. The ET, however, refused to appoint a litigation friend on the basis that it had no power to do so.

In ruling upon her challenge to that decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted that neither the Employment Tribunals Act 1996 nor the Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2013 conferred any express power to appoint litigation friends.

However, in allowing the woman’s appeal, the EAT found that the absence of such a power was incompatible with the common law duty of fairness and the woman’s human right to a fair hearing. Without a litigation friend, the woman and other vulnerable litigants in the same position would be prevented from participating in employment proceedings in any real sense.

The EAT recognised that ETs are creatures of statute and can exercise only those powers that are conferred on them by Parliament. However, when interpreted in accordance with fairness and human rights legislation, it found that the Regulations were broad enough to enable ETs to use their case management powers to appoint litigation friends. The case was remitted to the same ET for that to be done.

Because the case had raised novel issues of general public importance, the EAT had taken into account representations from the Law Society and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in reaching its decision.