Employment Tribunal claims continue to rise

New figures released today (16 March) by Acas, the employment relations service, have revealed that the number of businesses and employees trying to avoid Employment Tribunal claims has continued to rise in recent months.

Monthly calls to the Acas helpline that have resulted in being referred to the early conciliation service – pre-claim conciliation (PCC) – have almost doubled since September 2009. The free service aims to settle workplace issues that could escalate to an expensive tribunal.

By the end of February, 8,304 PCC referrals had been made from the Acas helpline since the service was launched to accompany changes to the Employment Act in April last year.  Acas estimates that more than 5,000 tribunal claims have been avoided already.

Rising demand for the service has resulted in a steady increase in referrals culminating in over 2,700 in the last quarter of 2009. The first quarter of 2010 is on track to exceed this figure by at least 20%. Currently, around 300 referrals are being received every week on average, and Acas expects this number to rise to approximately 400 during 2010.

Commenting on the figures, Ed Sweeney, Acas Chair said:

“This data indicates that workers and employers are increasingly taking steps to avoid Employment Tribunals. The current economic climate has created difficult workplace challenges for managers, HR professionals and employees. The earlier issues can be resolved, the more likely people will remain in productive employment in the workplace.

“The service is quick. Over half of all resolved cases are completed in around three weeks instead of the six to nine months that most  tribunal claims take. We have a responsibility to support the economic recovery by resolving workplace disputes early on to avoid costly, stressful and time-consuming employment tribunals.”

The PCC service was launched in April 2009 alongside the new Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures, following the Government’s Dispute Resolution Review in 2007.

London office block destroyed in major blaze

Firefighters attended at the scene of an early morning fire which destroyed an office block, restaurant and members’ bar on the edge of the City of London.

Around 100 firefighters and 20 fire engines worked to put the fire out, which was thought to have started in the kitchen of Sosho Bar, in Tabernacle Street, Shoreditch.

It took hold around 4am in the morning, and has destroyed 75 per cent of the third floor and roof in the block, and 50 per cent on the second and ground floors, according to the London fire Brigade. However, nobody had to be evacuated and there have been no reports of injuries.

The fire also spread to neighbouring buildings but the extent of the damage is still unknown. There were reports that thick smoke reached as far as the Bank of England and the Gherkin.

The cause is not known.

40% of employment enquiries last year related to bullying

Four in ten of all employment enquiries to one firm in 2009 were related to bullying. Contact Law, a solicitor-finding service, says that out of the 14,130 enquiries it received from employees relating to employment in 2009, 5,652 were in part related to bullying.

Dan Watkins, Director of Contact Law, says that although employers have been aware about the problem for some time now, the difficulty of firstly defining bullying and then acting upon it effectively means that it continues to be a prevalent issue in the workplace.

He commented:

“It is rare for bullying to actually manifest itself in a physical act of aggression such as throwing around mobile phones and documents. Most of the time bullying will be verbal, indirect or symbolic, such as undermining a colleague in front of peers.

“There is also a very fine line between what is defined as bullying or simply as a tough management style. An employee might think they are being bullied whilst an employer might think they are merely managing that employee properly.”

Hotel company convicted of fire safety offences

A company that owned a London hotel has been ordered to pay more than £21,000 in fines and costs after pleading guilty to six offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Malfax Investments Limited, which owned the Averard Hotel on Lancaster Gate in Bayswater, was sentenced this week at Westminster Magistrates Court.

The hotel was inspected by fire safety officers in April 2009, when they found a number of failings including inadequate fire detection and alarm system, problems with the external means of escape and inadequate and defective fire doors. As a result of these deficiencies, the officers issued an enforcement notice detailing the issues and when they needed to be resolved.

The company disclosed a fire risk assessment that was prepared in January 2008. Although it detailed a number of failings and advised steps they needed to take to address them, said London Fire Brigade, the company failed to act on the findings and implement any of the actions required.

The hotel closed shortly after the enforcement notice was issued.

Dealing with bogus claimants

According to the Tribunals Service, 151,000 employment discrimination claims were accepted in 2008-09, but though the majority were genuine, a damaging minority are being lodged, not by genuine claimants, but by vexatious litigants looking to cash in on employment legislation, or by individuals with a weak claim who are willing to ‘have a go’.

A weak claim is one that has little chance of succeeding, while a vexatious claim is one made out of malice, rather than because an individual genuinely feels they have been discriminated against. One type of vexatious claimant is the serial litigant.

And it’s the ease with which certain individuals are misusing the law to lodge bogus claims of employment discrimination that is causing employers much wasted time and money.

An alleged serial litigant has recently been named by the Sunday Times, and is believed to have earned thousands by making claims against employers who use terms such as ‘school leaver’ and ‘recent graduate’ in job advertisements.

By lodging claims repeatedly, these ‘serial litigants’ could be earning up to £50,000 per year tax-free, and the Federation of Small Businesses says that claims by serial litigants are becoming a ‘significant’ problem for many businesses.

In this feature we examine the rise of the serial litigant and what employers can do to avoid falling into their trap.

Supermarket fined after mice found

A supermarket has been fined £17,000 after customers spotted mice running between the aisles at a branch in Suffolk.

Tesco was fined and ordered to pay £57,000 towards costs over the state of its Tesco Extra store at Martlesham, near Ipswich.

Suffolk Coastal District Council’s food safety team found parts of the store were dirty and mice were active in many areas, South East Suffolk Magistrates’ Court in Ipswich heard. Tesco failed to ensure adequate procedures were in place to control pests and to ensure the premises were clean, the court heard.

“It is bad enough not to have had in place the basic safeguards that would have prevented rodents gaining access to the store, but I am amazed at the lack of serious action then taken to put an end to the problem,” said councillor Sherrie Green.

The store was convicted of eight offences under the Food Hygiene Regulations between April and August 2007.

Corporate manslaughter trial delay

The trial of the first British company charged under the landmark Corporate Manslaughter Act has been delayed because its director is unwell.
Mr Justice Field told Bristol Crown Court that is would be unfair for the trial to continue while Peter Eaton, 60, needed “urgent and intensive” medical treatment.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings is the first firm to be prosecuted under the 2007 Act and is accused over the death of 27-year-old geologist Alex Wright.
Mr Wright, from Cheltenham, died in September 2008 when a trench collapsed on him as he collected soil samples at a housing development site in Brimscombe, Gloucestershire.

Mr Eaton, of Stroud, also faces a charge of gross negligence manslaughter.

The trial was adjourned after both sides agreed that Mr Eaton was not fit to participate in the trial.
Mr Justice Field told the jury: “What has happened in this case is that I have acceded to the application of the defence to adjourn this trial for a longish period because the defendant Mr Eaton requires urgent and intensive medical treatment.

“It would be unfair to require him to participate in this trial at the same time as undergoing this treatment.”
Both Mr Eaton and his company also face one charge each of Failure to discharge a duty, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

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