A Word from the Editor - April 2020

Alex Lock, DAC Beachcroft LLP
Wednesday, April 1, 2020

There has been much upheaval and turmoil in politics, economics and society over the past 12 years. A fairly benign period from about the mid-1990s reigned for 10 or so years. During that period, money was cheap, investment in public services grew and, for us as employment lawyers, a much more ‘rights-based’ and pro-diversity/equality agenda became entrenched. For a while it seemed that certainty and stability had also become entrenched, with the claimed end of everything, from ‘boom and bust’ to history itself.

The realisation that we might have allowed our hubris to get the better of ourselves and that we had, perhaps, taken our collective eyes off the many balls that should be kept firmly in our gaze, came up sharp in the financial crisis of 2008. Banks that were thought too big to fail did fail or became part of the state. Employment law was cut back, rights restricted and compensation capped. We entered a period of austerity, from which it has taken more than 10 years to recover.

We now find ourselves in quite different circumstances with a world pandemic of the Covid-19 virus. It is 18 March as I write this, and given the speed of change, it is difficult to make predictions about what it all means. Today we have 2,626 cases and 104 deaths. In Italy, two weeks earlier, they had 2,502 cases and 104 deaths. This suggests that by the time you read this, assuming probably online rather than in print, the UK may have 28,000 cases and 2,150 deaths.

To combat this already means profound change for working life and this is likely to increase. Among other things, what it will do is to test the resilience of employment law and our tribunal system. In relation to the former, the sort of measures being introduced to tackle the spread of the virus, coupled with the economic impact they have, will not have been experienced in the UK since the second world war. The Employment Rights Act 1996 and its predecessor, the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, were not borne out of that experience.

The employment tribunal system has been under strain for a sustained period. Consistent reductions in its budget, together with changes to its estate and investment, coupled with the introduction then abolition of tribunal fees, have all taken their toll. The move to electronic hearings, where possible, may expose the weaknesses of the system and hopefully drive a willingness to invest.

That will all fall into the lap of Barry Clarke, the newly appointed President of the Employment Tribunals. Barry is an active employment lawyer, former chair of ELA and a Regional Employment Judge, so he is well placed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the system, as well as the concerns of practitioners and users alike. We offer him our support and good wishes.

Sadly, we say farewell to Brian Doyle, the outgoing President. Brian was appointed President in 2014 and has been in the role during a difficult and challenging period. To his credit, he has always been open and willing to engage with practitioners, both in writing for ELA Briefing and undertaking road shows to meet and discuss changes and priorities. On behalf of ELA, I wish Brian well in his retirement.

Alex Lock, DAC Beachcroft LLP

The legal content in this article is believed to be correct and true on this date.