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What would happen if employees began self-representing at tribunals?

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Donna Patterson’s employment tribunal victory – without any legal representation – against supermarket giant Morrisons for unfair dismissal and gender discrimination has raised the stakes for employees who want to defend their own corner.

Morrisons was ordered to pay Patterson £60,442.25 after her role was changed from part-time to full-time while on maternity leave. According to the Pregnant Then Screwed charity, which helped Patterson win her case, she was unable to pay expensive legal fees and decided to represent herself.

patterson said Human ressources that self-representation was not her “first option”, but that it was “a case where all my other options disappeared”, she explains. “I had a really good tip from Pregnant Then Screwed to check with my home insurance if I had legal protection, and I thought at the start of this process that it would cover all my costs.

“If I had realized from day one that I had to represent myself, I don’t know if I would have, but it’s hard to know for sure. I had pinned all my hopes on legal expenses insurance, and when I found out they wouldn’t protect me, I started contacting other lawyers, but they were too expensive.

Patterson – who was dubbed ‘Bradford’s Erin Brockovich’ for her win – adds that she didn’t know how many hours it would take a lawyer to handle her case, but she had no choice but to going it alone because she wanted “to make the Morrisons aware that what they had done was wrong”.

Indeed, it appears Patterson has inspired others, as Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, confirms the charity has seen an ‘uptick in calls’ from women seeking to take their cases to court. . Brearley says, “Donna has shown mothers that it is possible to take on the giants even without any professional legal expertise. It’s incredibly powerful.

Sarah Williams, head of employment at Taylors Solicitors, points out that this is not a new phenomenon, as “it’s actually very common for employees to bring suits in their own name as ‘litigants’. in person’ before a labor court”. She adds that legal representation can be expensive, but “many people sue in labor court with the help of an attorney in a no-gain, no-cost agreement.”

So Human ressources asked the experts what would happen if employees were increasingly representing themselves in court, and if it would become more common during the economic downturn.

Raising employers’ awareness of external support

“Employers should have no doubt that there are many organizations and charities that provide free support,” says Williams, adding that “employment court judges must ensure that a litigant in person is not at a disadvantage if he decides to go it alone.”

As for charities, other organizations that offer support should assess the case on its merits, says Alan Lewis, partner at Constantine Law, because otherwise “the organizations would be wasting funds, which are already scarce.” He warns that there could be “an increase in the number of claims in this situation, especially as the UK enters a recession and there will inevitably be more redundancies and disputes over the fairness of redundancies for dismissal”.

Antonio Fletcher, head of employment at Whitehead Monckton, says tribunals were “originally intended” to be less formal settings than courts, in which parties could represent themselves. “Over the years, unions and other organizations have provided support to people filing grievances; similarly, the number of people representing themselves is also likely to be higher than in court proceedings,” he says.

Keely Rushmore, employment partner at Keystone Law, says companies facing claims from in-person litigants could find themselves strapped for cash. “Employers [facing these types of claims] will generally find that their costs increase as the burden of preparing for the hearing will fall largely on them and the claim is likely to be less structured and specific,” she explains.

Legal costs vs savings

Rushmore says there is “a growing trend for applicants to secure funds from charities or other means, such as crowdfunding.” She adds: “With the pressure of the cost of living and the employment tribunals providing a potentially inexpensive and low-risk way to bring claims, employers may well find that they face an increased number of claims in the courts. work.”

With employees and businesses watching their finances closely, a court is not an ideal outcome for either party. But according to Fletcher, the cost-of-living crisis could not only lead to more lawsuits in court, but also see more employees trying to cut their legal fees. “It’s likely that the current economic climate will see more claims filed in general, particularly if it becomes more difficult for individuals to find new employment once their employment is terminated,” Fletcher said. “These claims are likely to include a relatively large number of claims from self-represented individuals where they have no clear means of funding representation.”

Alan Lewis says that people in a situation similar to Patterson, without legal expense insurance cover – often a supplement to buildings and contents insurance – the choice will be to “go it alone or not no complaints at all”. He adds: “Those who want to follow Patterson’s example should note that it will be difficult.

“Patterson herself, having to face a three-person panel and a respondent represented by counsel, said in her BBC Radio 4 interview: ‘It was grueling; it was tiring. I got up very late at night to prepare, go through materials and even during the hearing every day, I went home every night and was exhausted. I had nothing left in me.

The risks for employees who go it alone

Employees who go it alone without proper guidance could run into several pitfalls, says Lewis: [legal] knowledge.” This would result in a lack of compensation.

As Fletcher notes: “Labour law is one of the fastest moving areas of law in terms of changes that take place on a regular basis. Keeping abreast of these changes, as well as understanding the complex laws that have developed and expanded over time, can therefore be very difficult for those who do not specialize in the field.

He also points out that claims currently take “significantly longer,” which can make it “difficult” for individuals to successfully submit claims themselves.

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