Employment tribunals and their users alike have been told to ‘take heed’ of the need to take a ‘firm grip’ on proceedings to ensure conservation of public funds. The Court of Appeal expressed disquiet that an unfair dismissal claim that raised relatively straightforward issues had taken 24 days to hear.
In the context of an unsuccessful claim by a teacher that a historic final warning should not have been held against her in disciplinary proceedings, Lord Justice Lewison said: “I cannot believe that it was intended that a claim for unfair dismissal should take some four weeks to hear, with witnesses producing witness statements hundreds of pages long and being subjected to cross-examination for days on end.”
Observing that the overriding objective to do justice between the parties seemed to have been ‘largely forgotten’ in the conduct of the case, the judge emphasised that it was not for employment tribunals to embark on primary fact-finding exercises but to decide the single issue of whether an employer had acted fairly.
Urging stricter case management, the judge added: “If the parties have failed in their duty to assist the tribunal to further the overriding objective, the employment tribunal must itself take a firm grip of the case. To do otherwise wastes public money, prevents other cases from being heard in a timely fashion and is unfair to the parties in subjecting them to increased costs and, at least in the case of the employer, detracting from his primary concern, namely to run a business”.
The teacher had argued that a final warning that counted crucially against her in disciplinary proceedings should have been treated as a nullity on the basis that the alleged facts that underpinned it were hotly disputed. However, dismissing her appeal, the court ruled that, as the warning was on her employment record at the time of her dismissal and the teacher’s appeal against it had been aborted, her employers had been entitled to take it into account. The court upheld the tribunal’s ruling that her dismissal was ‘within the range of reasonable responses’ open to her local authority employer.