It’s good to talk - early conciliation scheme
Litigation isn’t pretty. In fact, it usually involves a considerable amount of mud-slinging on both sides. As William Roache reminded us recently, rarely do the ‘winners’ consider themselves lucky. The process will have been time-consuming, potentially embarrassing and stressful because, by its very nature, the outcome remains uncertain.
Litigation is also expensive, not just for the parties involved but for the public purse. For some time now, the government has been devising ways of encouraging parties to resolve their employment disputes before they reach the courts. For example, they have extended the circumstances in which an employer can have an ‘off the record’ conversation with an employee about their departure. In conjunction with this, they have introduced measures to put off all but the most determined litigant, eg by increasing the length of service needed for unfair dismissal claims and introducing tribunal fees.
The latest scheme is early conciliation (EC). From 6 April 2014, an employee will be required to contact ACAS before lodging a claim in the tribunal. ACAS will then allocate an EC support officer who has up to a month to promote settlement between the parties. This ‘stops the clock’ in terms of the time limit for lodging the claim. If settlement is not reached, either because the officer decides there is no reasonable prospect of achieving this, because one party decides not to engage in the process or the prescribed period expires, he will issue the employee with a certificate containing a unique reference number with which he can submit his claim.
The debate as to whether EC will have the desired effect continues. It works in theory and ACAS is optimistic but it remains to be seen whether it has the resources to take the proactive, robust approach necessary to get results. Another concern is that the government has chosen not to require claimants to provide information about their complaint to ACAS. This may hinder meaningful discussion, particularly if the claimant is unrepresented and cannot articulate the full extent of his claim. Lastly, with the recent introduction of tribunal fees, employers may choose to wait to see how serious the employee is before choosing to settle.