Obviously when you hold a high judicial office in the UK you have to be very measured in the reports you can make about your function – no ranting tweets here about your boss/service-users/colleagues/coffee, thank you, or that’s your gong firmly down the drain.  

Which makes all the more laudable the very clear disgruntlement discernible in the 2013 Annual Report of the Senior President of Tribunals, or at least those parts of it relating to the Employment Tribunal system.  There is gratifying evidence that the frustrations of Tribunal users over new rules and procedures, delays, shortage of Judges, etc., are more than shared by the senior members of the Employment Tribunal system.  

Shona Simon, President of the Scottish ETs, opens brightly with a twin poke at the legislative process and the soft target of traditional Government failure to make any big IT project work properly.  “It would not be true to say that the introduction of fees of the new rules went entirely without a hitch”, she reports, moving on swiftly to detailing “some significant difficulties, particularly in relation to the ability of the case management system to generate the standard letters which are so crucial to service delivery”.  Does no-one in the Government’s Procurement team test this stuff first?   President Simon concludes rather tartly that the Scottish Employment Judges and administrative staff have displayed in 2013 “commitment, enthusiasm and dedication which is, in all the circumstances [you can more or less hear the underlining], nothing short of remarkable”.    

England and Wales Tribunal President David Latham makes less of an effort to pretend that everything is rosy in the Employment Tribunal’s garden.  He refers early on to judicial concern previously expressed to Ministers that the simultaneous introduction of fees and procedural changes “would inevitably result in software problems and confusion for users, and experience has confirmed those fears”.    

That clear told-you-so is fighting talk in Judge-speak, but pales into passing the time of day compared with his obvious ire over the recruitment of additional Judges.  It is “disappointing”, he writes through gritted teeth, that “with no shortage of suitable candidates”, administrative resource constraints more or less halved the number of new Judges appointed compared to the actual vacancy list.   No accident perhaps that President Latham’s next paragraph deals with the adverse effect of low morale among judicial and administrative staff on the Employment Tribunals’ performance, and leads to the blunt conclusion that “whatever results from proposals to change the funding basis of ….the Tribunals, it [must be] hoped that resources will increase to allow a better service to be delivered to the public”.    

Both Presidents declined to make any call on whether the introduction of fees and new rules has actually had any impact on the number of claims, each citing a spike in claims just before fees were introduced in July, and a relative lull afterwards.    

On the bright side for Tribunal users, each President speaks relatively warmly of the pre-claim conciliation process due in April this year and of the 70+% success rate enjoyed by judicial mediation.  It is clear that they consider the additional emphasis on such avenues to represent the future of Tribunal litigation to some extent.   

So next time you get a call from a harassed and defensive ET Clerk the night before your hearing to tell you that it is off, shortened by two days or going to be heard in a Social Security office in Shetland, breathe deeply and remember that nobody at the Tribunal end is much enjoying it either.