People's right to redress in employment law disputes is being undermined by a long delay in hearings resulting from lockdown and Covid-19, it's been claimed.
This month, a direction from Eileen McBride, president of the Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal, said that hearings listed for between July and the end of October are now postponed.
But employment solicitor Rosemary Connolly said delaying hearings until November at the earliest was potentially harmful as claims were usually urgent matters.
And practitioners are concerned about a future backlog - which is likely to increase as many staff face the prospect of losing their jobs when the furlough scheme runs out. That could give rise to possible legal action by workers if proper procedure is not followed.
The tribunals building has been closed since March, though the direction said preparations for remote hearings are being made.
Ms Connolly, who runs a practice in Warrenpoint, said: "Individuals who have had their employment terminated face immediate financial hardship and where they have grounds for seeking legal redress it is important that this should be available to them within a timely fashion given that they will have lost income as a result."
The tribunals system is part of the Department for the Economy, which said staff were working remotely to process claims.
Ms Connolly said delays to hearings did not help either side to a dispute.
“It is never advantageous to anyone to be involved in litigation which is unduly lengthy because of course with the passage of time memories fade and circumstances change,” she said.
“Litigation inevitably brings a certain degree of stress and of course ongoing financial pressure and it should always be an important consideration that, so far as possible and in particular in relation to the resolution of claims concerning legal rights and entitlements in employment, it should be brought to adjudication as soon as possible. This is in the interest of both employees and employers.”
The Department for the Economy said: “Whilst the office building closed on the March 26, staff, and the judiciary, have been working remotely to ensure that any cases that have been submitted since that date are being processed.
“All communications in regard to current cases is still being dealt with on a daily basis.”
Louise McAloon, an employment law partner at Belfast-based solicitors Worthingtons, said the impact of Covid-19 on the tribunals system would be felt into 2022.
But she said there was evidence of continued decision-making on claims, with her firm being given the decision in a claimant’s case where the action was started ahead of the pandemic.
However, warning there would be a backlog to contend with, she said: “Not only is there delay in listing of hearings, but decisions usually take place months thereafter. Employers and employees will see a delay in any sort of outcome into 2021 and further on.
“Employees might question whether it’s worth making a claim as life does move on.”
She said she expected claims to arise out of the interpretation of furlough and redundancy. Firms are expected to assess the size of their workforce before the Government’s wage support furlough scheme comes to a close.
“When you take these delays alongside the fact that increased redundancies mean we’re likely to see an upturn in claims, this will be quite an acute period for the tribunals right into January next year,” she explained.
She added that after experiencing the 2008 recession, claims over redundancy were now to be expected in the present downturn.
“Between adjourned claims and more cases, when you put those together the public will feel they’re not necessarily getting justice in the right timescale,” Ms McAloon said.
She said many tribunals had been heard remotely in Britain but there was a reluctance to embrace a remote format in Northern Ireland — particularly in complex cases involving contentious issues.
In Britain, appeals to the decisions of employment tribunals can be taken to an Appeals Tribunal, but in Northern Ireland they must be taken to the Court of Appeal. Ms McAloon said that the expense involved in that route mean that many were keen for hearings to be carried out in person so that the correct decision could be made.
Another employment lawyer, who did not want to be named, said compensation for unfair dismissal or similar actions could sometimes tide a worker over until their next job. However, delays in processing claims could mean people missing out on a lifeline when they needed it the most.
Ms McAloon said it was not clear possible delays would put people off making claims.
“None of us know if it would have a chilling factor... it’s very much of an unknown. But there is a worry justice delayed is justice denied. People with meritorious claims and entitled to compensation may have to wait months if not years to receive it,” she said.