Employment tribunals and dispute resolution: key differences in Scotland and Northern Ireland

Updating author: Max Winthrop, consultant editor (Northern Ireland): Andrew Spratt

Future developments

Scotland: In December 2014, the Smith Commission recommended that control of employment tribunals in Scotland be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Accordingly, Scotland may be able to decide the level at which tribunal fees are set for claims made in Scotland, or abolish the fee regime completely.

On 1 September 2015, the Scottish Government published its programme for Scotland 2015-16. The programme sets out how the Scottish Government intends "to use the additional powers which are due to come to the Scottish Parliament", and includes a statement that it will use its powers to "abolish fees for employment tribunals".

On 27 January 2016, the Scottish Government published a consultation on the Transfer of specified functions of the employment tribunal to the first-tier tribunal for Scotland. The consultation sought views on the proposal to allow the first-tier tribunal to hear Scottish employment cases together with a number of cases that do not fit within that category but that have a sufficient link to Scotland and should, therefore, be heard in a Scottish tribunal. The consultation included the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Employment Tribunals) Order 201X. The draft Order illustrates the proposed approach in transferring specified functions of the employment tribunal to the Scottish tribunals. The draft Order is made as a consequence of clause 37 of the Scotland Bill, which allows for the transfer of tribunal functions (that relate to reserved matters and deal with Scottish cases) to a Scottish tribunal. Article 5 of the draft Order defines what will count as a "Scottish case" while art.8 allows cases to be transferred from the Scottish first-tier tribunal to the England and Wales jurisdiction if that is appropriate. While the draft Order does not deal with the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), the Scottish Government envisages that there will be equivalent provisions for the EAT in relation to Scottish employment cases. The consultation closed on 24 March 2016.

Northern Ireland: The Employment Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which received Royal Assent on 22 April 2016, will align some of the employment laws in Northern Ireland with Great Britain. The Act contains provisions to introduce early conciliation by making it mandatory for prospective claimants to provide information about a prospective claim to the Labour Relations Agency to explore settlement prior to issuing the claim. Additionally, there are provisions for the President and Vice-President of industrial tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal, and any chairman of industrial tribunals, to be referred to as an employment judge. These provisions of the Employment Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 are not yet in force.

The Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland (DELNI), whose functions and services have been transferred to the Department for the Economy (DfE) and the Department for Communities, commissioned a number of discrete projects that are being taken forward separately from the employment law review process that began in 2013. These projects, which have passed to the DfE, include a review of the current tribunal rules that takes account of the recommendations of Justice Underhill's review in Great Britain.

The DELNI's public consultation on Developing modern, efficient and effective employment tribunals closed on 25 September 2015. The consultation sought views on how to improve the tribunal service and the experience of users of the tribunal system, and the draft new rules and procedures for industrial tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal. The DfE will take this consultation forward.


Since 1 October 2004 there have been common employment tribunal rules of procedure for Scotland, England and Wales. Some minor variations in practice in Scottish tribunals have continued, as follows:

  • The claimant will send the claim form (ET1) to the Central Office of Employment Tribunals for Scotland, which is based in Glasgow, rather than a Regional Office, although as in England and Wales, there is provision for online submission.
  • Witness statements are generally not used; witnesses usually give their evidence orally. Witnesses generally remain outside the hearing until they have given evidence.
  • Closing submissions follow the order of the evidence.
  • Tribunals tend not to split liability and remedy hearings so in nearly all cases the decision is reserved.
  • The President of the Employment Tribunals in Scotland has issued practice directions that apply only to tribunal proceedings in Scotland (on the Department for Justice website).
  • Costs are usually referred to as expenses in Scotland.
  • Legal Aid covers representation at employment tribunals in Scotland, although qualification is subject to strict financial means tests.

Appeals from the employment tribunal are heard by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), appeals from the EAT are dealt with by the Court of Session, and appeals from the Court of Session proceed to the Supreme Court.

The Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2004 (SI 2013/1237) apply to Scotland with a couple of minor modifications relating, among other things, to the jurisdiction of tribunals in Scotland (para.8(3) of sch.1 to the Regulations. The Employment Tribunals Extension of Jurisdiction (Scotland) Order 1994 (SI 1994/1624) permits tribunals to deal with claims for breach of contract that arise or are outstanding on termination of an employee's employment.

Discrimination and equal pay

The law relating to discrimination and equal pay is governed by the Equality Act 2010 in Scotland just as in England and Wales, with a few variations.

In relation to equal pay, there are some differences in the provisions relating to time limits for commencing proceedings and limits on arrears in pay between Scotland and England and Wales. With effect from 1 October 2010, the Equality Act 2010 replaced the Equal Pay Act 1970. The time limit for commencing proceedings in Scotland does not start to run until an employee is 16 (the age being 18 in England and Wales). In Scotland, the normal limit on arrears is five years from the commencement of proceedings with a maximum limit of 20 years applying to arrears in cases where the employer's actions prevented the employee from commencing proceedings or the employee was under 16 or incapable within the meaning of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000.

Acas Arbitration Scheme

The Acas Arbitration Scheme (Great Britain) Order 2004 introduced an Acas Arbitration Scheme in Scotland with effect from 6 April 2004.

All originating applications in the employment tribunal are sent to the Central Office of Employment Tribunals in Glasgow.

The President of the Employment Tribunals in Scotland has issued Practice Directions (on the Tribunals Service website) dealing with: the provision of a list of documents 14 days before a tribunal hearing (Practice Direction 1); sists (stays) for mediation (Practice Direction 2); and contractual counterclaims (Practice Direction 3).

Northern Ireland

The industrial tribunals (as they are still known in Northern Ireland) are constituted under the Industrial Tribunals (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (SI 1996/1291) (NI 18) and the Industrial Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 (SR 2005/150).

All claim forms (ET1 (NI)) for claims to an industrial tribunal claims and/or the Fair Employment Tribunal are sent to the Office of the Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal in Belfast, although there is provision for online submission. There is a prescribed form available for submitting an employer's response (ET3 (NI)).

Claimants in Northern Ireland are not required to obtain an early conciliation certificate or pay a fee prior to pursuing a claim in the tribunal, which contrasts with the position in the rest of the UK where mandatory requirements in relation to early conciliation were introduced on 6 May 2014 and tribunal fees were introduced on 29 July 2013.

The Fair Employment Tribunal hears discrimination claims on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion brought under the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (SI 1998/3162) (NI 21) (which repealed and replaced in consolidated form the provisions of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976 and Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989). The procedure in the Fair Employment Tribunal is governed by the Fair Employment Tribunal (Rules of Procedure) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 (SR 2005/151).

In contrast to the rest of the UK where the statutory questionnaire procedure was repealed with effect from 6 April 2014, the questionnaire procedure is still in operation in Northern Ireland and may be used in relation to all of the prohibited grounds and equal pay cases.

Appeals from the industrial tribunal and Fair Employment Tribunal are heard by the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and appeals from the Court of Appeal proceed to the Supreme Court (there is no Employment Appeal Tribunal in Northern Ireland).


There is no Acas Arbitration Scheme in Northern Ireland, but the Labour Relations Agency introduced a scheme very similar to the Acas scheme. Under a scheme that came into force on 27 September 2012, the option of voluntary binding arbitration as an alternative to bringing a claim to an industrial tribunal was extended beyond the remit of the previous scheme for unfair dismissal and flexible working claims to cover claims under most employment rights jurisdictions, including: the handling of redundancies and protective awards, redundancy payments, discrimination and equal pay.

Under the scheme, an arbitrator's decision is binding in law and the matter cannot be pursued to a tribunal. However, a decision can be challenged on the ground of substantive jurisdiction or serious irregularity, or appealed on a question of EC law or the application of the Human Rights Act 1998. Challenges and appeals are made to the High Court or the county court. The Labour Relations Agency Arbitration Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) 2012 (SR 2012/301) defines and governs how the scheme operates, while the Labour Relations Agency Arbitration Scheme (Jurisdiction) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012 (SR 2012/302) stipulates the employment rights jurisdictions to which the scheme applies.