Costs threats in employment tribunals: a proposal for reform

The Employment Tribunal Rules implemented in 2013 went wider than simply introducing fees.  As a package, I would argue that they have shifted too much of the risk of bringing a claim onto the claimant.  In particular, the increase in the maximum cost order from £10,000 to £20,000 has made it more attractive for employers to make unwarranted costs threats in an effort to force employees to drop their cases or settle on unfavourable terms.  My proposal seeks to remedy that by allowing tribunals to order an uplift in compensation where an employer makes an unreasonable costs threat and goes on to lose at tribunal.

Prior to July 2013, the main financial risk a claimant faced at tribunal was a costs order, which could be made if the tribunal found that the party or their representative had in conducting proceedings ‘acted vexatiously, abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably’ or if their bringing or conducting of the proceedings had been misconceived.

The maximum costs order the tribunal could make was £10,000. The tribunal also had the power to order a party to pay a deposit of up to £500 if at a pre-hearing review it was held that their arguments had little prospect of success.

The Rules introduced in July 2013 widened the scope and potential scale of costs orders: the maximum costs order was increased to £20,000 and the tribunal gained the power to make a costs order where the party’s claim or response has no reasonable prospect of success. The maximum deposit order was increased to £1,000.

Whilst costs orders can be made either way, they tend to be made against a losing claimant and on the request of the winning respondent. Even when the maximum costs order was £10,000 there was evidence that costs warnings were being used to try to pressurise employees to withdraw their claims. This was acknowledged by the Government’s Resolving workplace disputes consultation in January 2011:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cases, where the claimant is unrepresented, respondents or their representatives use the threat of cost sanctions as a means of putting undue pressure on their opponents to withdraw from the tribunal process. We would welcome views on this and any evidence of aggressive litigation.

In fact Citizens Advice published a paper in 2004 illustrating the extent of unjustified costs threats.  They reiterated these concerns in their response to the 2011 consultation.  They were not alone: Cloisters (whose members include three past chairs of the Employment Law Bar Association) noted that:

Regrettably, members of chambers have seen the oppressive use of costs threats by some respondents or their representatives.

Unite, the union, wrote:

The Union has no doubt that where the claimant is unrepresented the threat of costs sanctions is used by some respondents as a means of putting undue pressure on the claimant.

ACAS reported that:

…a few representatives make almost universal use of this tactic when faced with unrepresented claimants.

Organisations representing employers acknowledged the practice too.  EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, stated that they were:

…aware that some respondent representatives use cost warnings as a standard tactic in defending claims.

They added that they did not support the practice.  Indeed they thought it counter-productive.

Given the widespread reporting of costs threats, and the concerns raised by organisations representing both employers and employees, it is unfortunate that the Government responded by doubling the maximum costs award – without including any protection for claimants.

£20,000 is a terrifying sum of money to most people and whilst a tribunal has to consider a party’s means when making a costs order, they are construed fairly widely.

Given the prevalence of respondents’ threats, one might think that tribunals regularly make costs orders.  But they are made less than 1% of the time. In 2013/14 the median costs order was £1000.  As the Citizens’ Advice Adviceguide website notes:

Your employer’s representative may say they will apply for you to pay costs but, usually, they are just trying to scare you into dropping the case or accepting a low offer of settlement.

So there is little to stop a respondent or their representative from making a cost threat, even where the claim has obvious merit.  The risk is that employees with legitimate claims are being put off getting justice because of cost threats that are not made in good faith.

Whilst tribunal awards are meant to be compensatory, there is a precedent for increasing awards where there is unreasonable behaviour: where a party unreasonably fails to comply with a relevant ACAS code of practice, the tribunal can order an uplift or downlift of up to 25% in compensation awarded.

So it would not be a huge departure from existing practice to allow the tribunal to order an uplift to compensation where a respondent has made an unreasonable costs threat.  The test should be a mirror of the test for making a costs order – that is to say the respondent’s costs threat must be found to be vexatious, abusive, disruptive or otherwise unreasonable or misconceived, or had no reasonable prospect of success.  This is a relatively high bar.  Just as a claimant who loses does not automatically have to pay the respondent’s costs, a respondent who loses should not have to pay an uplift simply because they have made a costs threat.  The respondent should have acted unreasonably before the uplift kicks in.

This modest reform is likely to have several effects, almost all of them beneficial.  There would likely be a reduction in the number of costs threats being made by respondents and their representatives.  All other things being equal, this might result in more cases going to a hearing as claimants would be less likely to drop otherwise meritorious cases in response to a costs threat.

However, adding an element of risk to costs threats may in fact encourage more early settlements.  Losing the opportunity of a ‘free hit’ on costs threats would likely focus the respondent’s mind on the hearing at an earlier stage and lead them to conclude that it is better to try to settle early.  Claimants may also be more receptive to settlement offers – as a number of responses to the Resolving workplace disputes consultation noted, costs threats can be counter-productive, antagonising claimants and making them more determined to see the case through to a hearing.

A reduction in the prevalence of costs threats might also mean that claimants would be better able to recognise and respond appropriately to genuine costs threats.  There would likely remain an element of bluff in the system, but it would no longer be a risk-free bluff.

The question of whether a costs threat is unreasonable should be a question of fact for the tribunal, as should whether a communication constitutes a costs threat.  A respondent who provides general information about costs should not be considered as making a costs threat, but the need for respondents to do this would be reduced if at the same time the ET1 form was amended to give claimants more information about the risks of costs.

If a communication is made and the claimant or their representative thinks it may be an unreasonable costs threat, they should be able to put the respondent on notice that should they win, they will ask the tribunal for an uplift. The respondent would then have an opportunity to withdraw the communication. If the respondent withdraws the communication they would be not be able to use it at a later stage as evidence that the claimant had acted unreasonably.

One potential pitfall of this approach is that claimants may start to disregard the risk of being ordered to pay costs because respondents and their representatives will become overly cautious about making warnings.

There are two answers to this.  First, the amended tribunal rules should be drafted in a way that makes clear that a costs threat is not automatically unreasonable just because the party who made it goes on to lose.  Second, an amended ET1 form would provide factual information about the circumstances in which a claimant might have to pay costs.

Whilst any law reform has potential risks, the benefits of this approach are potentially substantial – more cases settling early, more ethical behaviour, less mistrust between employers and employees, and increased confidence in the justice system for claimants.

It simply cannot be right that a claimant who is unfairly dismissed can be effectively compelled to drop their case because of an intimidatory costs threat.  These claimants are being doubly let down, by their employers and by the justice system.  That is why we need this reform.

4 thoughts on “Costs threats in employment tribunals: a proposal for reform

  1. Amy,

    Thanks for a very interesting piece.

    A couple of quick points:

    £20,00 is not, of course, the maximum costs order. It is the maximum order that can be made without an assessment. There is no limit to the sum that can be awarded on assessment.

    Is there any evidence that costs threats are now being made more frequently as a result in the cap for unassessed costs being increased?

    The ET can already penalise respondents who try to use costs threats to bully claimants by making costs awards or PTOs against them. Do you think enhancing compensation is a preferable mechanism?

    • Sean,

      Thanks for letting me post on your blog, it’s much appreciated. You are quite right about £20,000 being the limit for unassessed costs only.

      To my knowledge, there is no evidence that costs threats are being made more or less frequently as a result of the cap for unassessed costs being doubled. I would imagine (but don’t know) that increasing the cap would make it more tempting to threaten costs, or at least make those threats that are made a bit more effective. I’ve only done a very small number of cases myself, all of which were under the 2013 rules, so I can’t comment from personal experience.

      One of the problems I found when trying to write about costs threats is that there is very little quantitive data about how they are used. This is partly because threats are made ‘without prejudice save as to costs’ and so don’t come to the attention of the tribunal unless the party who made the threat wins and tries to follow through on it. The Government acknowledged ‘anecdotal evidence’ of costs threats being used in this way their 2011 consultation, and included a question about it. A wide range organisations (including organisations representing employers) responded to say that it was happening and was undesirable.

      As for whether enhancing compensation is preferable to a costs order against the respondent or a preparation time order, I’m not sure. Looking at the tribunal statistics, roughly a quarter of all costs orders are made against respondents, which I don’t think would tally up with how often respondents make unfair costs threats. I can’t find any statistics on how often preparation time orders are made or how large the average order is, so it’s hard to comment on them. One advantage of my proposal is that it would be easy for non-lawyers to understand – although it would have to be done in a way that didn’t put stop legitimate costs threats, which I think do have a place in employment cases.

      Amy

  2. Amy, great post — thank you.

    I agree that there is a problem with unreasonable costs threats. In my experience, tribunals are fairly restrained in their use of costs orders. In principle, I think it’s fine to have sanctions for misconceived cases and unreasonable behaviour. And, I don’t see anything wrong with a costs threat in the right circumstances. If a claimant’s case really is fatally flawed, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out and explaining the possible consequences.

    But too many respondent reps use costs threats as a blunt instrument. They make blanket threats in every case, even if they know (or ought to know) that there’s no realistic prospect of costs being awarded. The sole purpose seems to be to intimidate.

    Personally, my response is to make counter costs threats, as Sean describes. Making improper threats of costs, plainly, is unreasonable conduct of the litigation. This generally sorts matters out.

    Unfortunately, this is a problem that’s easy to solve, if you’re an experienced representative, but hard to solve if you’re a litigant in person. I’m not sure your proposal gets at the real issue, which is the inequality of arms between represented and unrepresented litigants. If you’re unrepresented, it’s hard to know if the threat is unreasonable or not.

    I occasionally wonder if the real solution is regulatory. While it’s not desirable for regulators to examine the conduct of every case, where a firm or organisation appears to have a blanket policy of overuse of costs threats, this does seem to be something the SRA, BSB or Claims Management Regulator could get involved in.

  3. I have to represent myself. Been a whistleblower and now unfairly dismissed for ‘not looking for another job’. I’m not making that up! It is a Government department aligned with Health with bottomless pits of money to stop Plebs like me telling people like you – well anything. I’ve paid £1250 for the right to stand in court. I’m being threatened by the Court that if my disclosures and detriments don’t pass scrutiny my bank account will get the bill. It is an honest case from me, with nothing but denial from them. Their barrister is known to 2 solicitors I’ve spoken to. Rottreiler constantly after deposit orders. Until it happens to you, no one knows that it is money-maker as well as anti-democracy. So, £1,250 to bring your case, £20,000 deposit order which the other side holds, the case is strung out, you don’t get £20,000 back if any. You pay your legals if you have any. Who is the loser? Who allowed this law? I vow to make grounded justice my charity if I survive this myself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s