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What happens at a tribunal hearing?

There is a complex set of rules governing tribunal procedures and tribunals have considerable discretion in how to handle cases. You should provide as much supporting written documentary evidence as soon in advance of your hearing as possible.

The tribunal can, on application, order both you and the employer to provide more evidence. This used to be referred to as 'providing further and better particulars' and is now known as 'responding to a request for written answers'.

In addition to witness statements being presented at the hearing, the tribunal will normally expect to see items such as notes of meetings, copies of written warnings, copies of the company disciplinary procedure, correspondence from HR and pay statements. Either side can ask the tribunal to order disclosure of documents before the hearing if they feel that the other side is withholding documents that are necessary to make a fair decision. The tribunal can also make witness orders, requiring witnesses for you or the employer to attend.

Most tribunal hearings are held in large rooms, rather than formal court rooms. The judge (or the panel) will sit at the front, with the parties to the case and their representatives sitting opposite on the front row of chairs with others behind. Tribunal hearings are open to the public, unless a specific request is made to the tribunal for a closed hearing and the tribunal agrees to this. This is normally only done in cases of great sensitivity, for example, involving sexual harassment, or where there are implications for national security.

In England and Wales, both parties will make an opening statement presenting their case. In Scotland, there is not normally an opening statement. Whether the employer or the employee's representative goes first depends on the nature of the case. The main consideration is where the burden of proof lies. In some cases, the onus is on you to show that your employer acted illegally (for example, where you believe that you were constructively dismissed). In others, it is up to the employer to show they acted legally. For example, if you have been dismissed while you are pregnant, it is entirely up to the employer to show it had good reason to sack you. That is to say, the tribunal will assume you were dismissed unfairly unless your employer can prove that it sacked you fairly.

After the opening statements, the tribunal will invite the parties to call their witnesses to give their evidence (witness statements are no longer read out by a witness). The tribunal will cross-examine witnesses, scrutinise the documentation, and finally call for closing statements from both parties (summarising the significance of the evidence heard and referencing the legal authorities).

At any time during the hearing, the tribunal can adjourn – e.g. if time runs out, or if either party wants to consider a settlement out of court. It can also stop proceedings if the Respondent decides to concede the case, or if the tribunal decides that one party or the other is the clear winner, and nothing would be gained by continuing the hearing. The panel decides whether you have won the case, and then goes on to consider what compensation or other award you should receive.

Each member of the three person tribunal has an equal say, so it is possible for the lay members to outvote the Chair. However, panels generally try to reach a consensus. A judge sits alone on unfair dismissal claims.

For straightforward cases, the decision will be given orally that day, with written confirmation and fuller reasons communicated in writing a few days later. However, for more complex cases, a tribunal will delay making a decision known as 'reserving judgement'.