Millions wasted on tribunals

October 14, 2005

Universities are spending millions of pounds fighting litigious staff despite the fact that the number of higher education disputes going to employment tribunals is a fraction of those in other employment fields.

Sector-wide figures made public for the first time under the Freedom of Information Act show that higher education staff are ten times less likely to go to tribunal than workers nationally.

Yet responses from 115 institutions reveal that the sector paid out £1.2 million to settle cases early and a further £250,000 to successful litigants.

Vice-chancellors estimate that this is the tip of the iceberg as universities incur substantial legal costs whether litigants win, lose or settle.

Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, which lost only one of 15 cases it faced in three years, described it as a "Catch-22 situation" where universities spent money in legal fees even if they won.

The bills continue to rise even though staff are almost four times more likely to lose their tribunals than the workforce at large. Only one in 20 cases succeeds compared with almost one in five nationally.

The figures, compiled exclusively by The Times Higher , were seized on by employers as proof that academics and other staff are treated much more fairly than in the wider world. But the high failure rate against universities prompted warnings that an anti-management culture was encouraging ill-conceived, expensive and morale-sapping legal disputes that should never be brought.

Institutions reported under the Fo... Act that staff took out at least 481 employment tribunal cases against their employers in the past three years.

The true figure is likely to be higher, as a number of institutions refused to comply with the request for data.

The figure represents 47 cases for every 100,000 university employees, far fewer than the 511 cases for every 100,000 in the general workforce.

Of the 264 cases where the outcome was clearly reported, only 13 cases were won - representing 5 per cent, compared with 18 per cent nationally.

The figures also reveal a readiness among university employers to settle cases out of court. Some 1 cases were settled in this manner, representing 48 per cent of cases compared with 37 per cent nationally.

A total of 74 known cases were lost - 28 per cent, compared with just 8 per cent nationally.

John Boam, personnel director at Portsmouth University and a member of the executive of the Universities Personnel Association, said the figures showed that staff were generally being treated fairly. But he said some staff might find it hard to come to terms with hard-nosed employment practices and seek redress through the law.

Peter Deer, former head of the Universities Personnel Association, and human resources director at Cambridge University, suggested the reason for the high staff failure rate could be that internal grievance procedures were not always up to scratch, leading staff to turn in frustration to the law.

Andy Pike, a national official at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "While 5 per cent win cases, a further 48 per cent achieve out-of-court settlements - so 53 per cent of the tribunals are settled on terms favourable to the employee."

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