Just weeks after erroneously informing us that employment tribunal case numbers are “bouncing back following the slump after the introduction of fees”, on Friday the Law Society’s Gazette trumpeted that Acas early conciliation has “cut tribunal cases in half” since its implementation in April 2014.
To be fair, the (very short) news report is a lot more accurate than its headline – so much so that you have to wonder which narcotic substance the sub-editor was enjoying at the time he or she came up with the headline. And perhaps it really doesn’t really matter whether a sub-editor at the Gazette knows the difference between ‘up’ and ‘down’. But if the self-proclaimed “publication of record to solicitors in England and Wales” can get so confused about basic legal matters, we can’t really blame less specialist news outlets (and politicians) for soaking up and repeating such canards. So it’s worth setting out in detail just how wrong that headline is.
The relevant official statistics are freely available. And – especially if we put them into a chart – even Gazette journalists, with their uncritical eye, should be able to see immediately that the implementation of Acas early conciliation in April 2014 has not reduced the number of ET cases by anything like 50%.
In January and February 2014 – by which time ET case numbers had pretty much stabilised following the introduction of fees in July 2013 – the average monthly number of new ET cases (single claims/cases + multiple claimant cases) was 1,922. And, over the three months up to March 2015 – the most recent months for which the figures are available – it was 1,626. That’s a reduction of 15.4% – which is slightly less than the 17% reduction predicted in the then government’s final regulatory impact assessment in February 2014, and a lot less than the 50% reduction now trumpeted by the Gazette.
Furthermore, no one can say with certainty that all of that 15.4% reduction can be credited to the implementation of ‘mandatory’ Acas early conciliation. As noted previously on this blog, some ministers seem to believe there has been a significant ‘downward trend’ in ET claim numbers in recent years, as the economy has slowly recovered from the near-fatal shock administered by bankers in 2008. And, if they’re right, some of that 15.4% reduction would have happened anyway.
So, how do we square this modest reduction of 15.4% with the fact – more accurately reported by Gazette journalist Chloe Smith in the body of her news report – that Acas is “preventing” about half of the cases notified to it under the early conciliation scheme from progressing to a tribunal claim? Well, one theory, previously set out on this blog, is that Acas is now hoovering up (and conciliating) lots of workplace disputes that would never have become a tribunal claim in any case.
Which, it must be emphasised, is arguably a very good thing. It has always been clear that the overall number of workplace disputes (or potential tribunal cases) far exceeds the actual number of tribunal cases. And, even before the introduction of hefty, upfront fees, many potential tribunal claimants were deterred by the likely time, stress and cost involved – in March 2014, the then minister for employment relations, Jenny Willott, wrote: “it costs on average £1,800 to present a claim at tribunal”. And now it would seem Acas is helping to resolve some of those ‘non-tribunal’ disputes. Bully for Acas, I say.
But the evident ‘success’ of Acas in hoovering up and resolving those ‘extra’ disputes is a separate matter to the (evidently modest) impact of early conciliation on the actual number of tribunal cases. And, of all people, journalists and sub-editors at the Law Society’s Gazette really ought to understand that.