A Hereford and Worcester firefighter has recently made national news in her fight to win compensation running into hundreds of thousands of pounds after her "personality and self-confidence" were alleged to have been destroyed by persistent sexual discrimination and intimidation. Last December a delicatessen assistant at Safeway was adjudged to have been unfairly dismissed for wearing his hair in a ponytail and a black bartender who lost her job when she took offence at a Jim Davidson video containing racist jokes was awarded Pounds 1,900 in damages.
Last month Zoran Milovanovic, a 54-year-old textile worker of Serb origin, alleged he had experienced increasing discrimination from fellow workers when fighting erupted in Bosnia and British troops went in. He won his case.
These are all examples of disputes settled in one of the 25 industrial tribunals in England and Wales. Scotland has its own system. Industrial tribunals are located in most major cities and, like Crown and Magistrates' courts, are open to the public. They offer excellent opportunities to see employment law in operation and for individual research or group visits by students on GNVQ or A-level business studies courses.
Industrial tribunals are independent judicial bodies set up to hear matters of dispute in the employment field. They consist of a legally qualified Chair and two other members, one drawn from a panel of employers, one from an employees' panel. In some cases the Chair sits alone. People bringing cases are referred to as "applicants", those answering them, "respondents". Applicants may represent themselves or be supported by a trade union official, the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Council for Racial Equality, and in more complex cases, either party may use a solicitor.
Tribunals deal with appeals, applications and complaints covered by such Acts of Parliament as the Employment Protection Act 1978, The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992, the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976. Unfair dismissal accounts for around 60 per cent of the business of tribunals, but they also deal with disputes about equal pay, sex and race discrimination, insolvency of employers, health and safety issues, breach of contract, medical suspension and occupational pensions schemes.
From visiting tribunals and talking to the Industrial Tribunals central office in London and the customer care manager in Sheffield, I've found a number of pointers to help the smooth running of a visit.
Tribunals do not always have the drama of the courtroom. Visits are more suitable for older students on specialist business studies courses and for the general visitor only after careful preparation. However, there are no age restrictions.
It is particularly important to choose appropriate hearings or to sample a number of cases in the course of a visit. There is less likely to be sensitive content than in a court case, but intimate details may emerge in some hearings, so it is wise to check. Hearings are listed up to two weeks in advance. The problem is that many appeals "fall away" and get settled before the hearing. Contact the listing officer of your nearest tribunal for advice.
Some hearings are private, for example, "Interlocutory Hearings", where representatives of the participants are discussing how a case should be conducted. Apart from such examples, the full range of issues is dealt with in public.
Students need to be reminded that the formality of the proceedings often conceals the fact that matters are being discussed which affect the livelihoods of the people concerned. Visitors must stand when the members of the tribunal enter and, unlike a court, leave and wait to be called back when they are making their final deliberations.
Tape-recording and photography are not allowed. Note-taking is, but any reporting restrictions relate to everyone present. It is best to check with the clerk.
Available seating varies but usually tribunals can only accommodate groups of 12-15 visitors.
The larger tribunals have designated customer care officers who will meet groups and introduce them to the procedures of a tribunal. Otherwise a tribunal clerk will accompany visitors to the hearing. It is sometimes possible to arrange for visiting speakers to come out to schools or colleges.
o The booklet Industrial Tribunals England and Wales: Procedures can be obtained from Job Centres, Citizens' Advice Bureaux and tribunals.
Initial enquiries: The Customer Care Manager, Office of the Industrial Tribunals, 14 East Parade, Sheffield, S1 2ET. Tel: 0114 273 8932. Fax: 0114 2762551. Free helpline for general queries: 0800 221111.