V-c slams tribunal 'Catch-22'

October 14, 2005

London South Bank University has wasted a "prodigious amount of money"

defending itself against tribunal cases that had little chance of succeeding, according to Deian Hopkin, the vice-chancellor.

His university has faced 15 cases in the past three years. In proportion to its 2,000 staff, it has one of the highest number of actions against it of all UK universities. But of these, nine cases were withdrawn, four were dismissed in court and one case was withdrawn after going to the European Court of Justice.

In fact, the university lost only one of the 15 cases, which was a test case for a point of law relating to pensions after staff were transferred from another employer.

"It is a Catch-22," Professor Hopkin said. "We lose both ways. If you win, you almost always still have to pay your legal costs."

Dr Hopkin knows the price of being right - he estimates that he has spent well over £250,000 on legal fees fighting one case that "has been rumbling on since 1995". This involved a 12-week hearing at one tribunal and four weeks more spent in the High Court.

For Professor Hopkin, the most alarming figure to emerge from The Times Higher 's exclusive analysis of employment tribunal cases is the 5 per cent success rate of the claimants and the failure rate of nearly 30 per cent.

"It's lunacy. Clearly cases are being taken to court with no chance of success," he said. "It is not just the money it costs but the sheer stress of the whole business."

The picture is similar elsewhere. At Manchester Metropolitan University, of 11 cases in 2002-03, five were withdrawn, one was struck out, one was defeated and three were settled out of court for a total of £12,300.

None from that year was won by the claimant.

According to Bill Hallam, Manchester Metropolitan human resources director, there is a trend for staff to lodge cases with tribunals before they have exhausted internal procedures, perhaps to up the ante in internal negotiations.

Queen's University Belfast had 53 cases taken out against it in the period.

Of the 30 that have concluded, none resulted in a victory for the complainant - 19 were withdrawn, one was dismissed by the court and nine were settled out of court at a total cost of £12,043.

Many cases that go to tribunal do have merit, and lecturers' union Natfhe would point to the nine settlements at Queen's as a sign that the success rate for claimants is kept low, as universities are quick to settle cases they know they will lose, and keep them under wraps with gagging clauses.

In total, 48 per cent of the tribunal cases in higher education were settled out of court, with a total known payout of £1.2 million. This could be the tip of the iceberg because many institutions declined to reveal settlement figures. Nationally, 37 per cent of cases are settled.

Dundee University settled 11 of its 17 cases and paid out £35,377 in settlement deals. Kingston University settled three cases for £60,936. Loughborough University settled three for £78,352.

The School of Oriental and African Studies paid £67,508 to settle seven of its ten cases. Soas said that it, "like many other public bodies, has responded to staff grievances in this way to minimise distress or disruption to the individuals concerned and to limit the cost to the institution of legal representation".

St Andrews University settled all four of its cases for a total of Pounds 205,000. It declined to comment this week.

Lincoln University also settled all of its four cases. It said: "The claims were for such relatively modest amounts that the university opted to settle rather than expend time and money in pursuing these applications to tribunal."

But the figures show that there have been some spectacular victories for staff against their managers in the 5 per cent of cases they won - amounting to a total payout of £254,658.

The Open University paid out £13,787 to one victor, and Edge Hill College of Higher Education paid out £66,325 to three. Two cases against Bristol University led to payouts of £103,000. One successful case against Bath University earned the claimant £34,596.

Andy Pike, national official at Natfhe, said universities had no room for complacency. He said the combination of 5 per cent victories and 48 per cent settlements showed that in more than half of cases staff grievances appeared to be legitimate.

"Rather than improving employment practices, many institutions often prefer to spend large sums of public money on settling cases out of court, thus keeping the extent of their transgressions from public scrutiny," he said.

Gill Evans, co-founder of the mediation service run by the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said that universities were often too ready to spend public money to get complainants "off their backs".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk </a>

CASH FOR CLAIMANTS

* Average amount paid out per settlement: £9,020

* Average amount paid out per claimant win: £26,128

* Total known amount paid out in settlements over the past three years: Pounds 1.2 million

* Average number of known higher education employment tribunals per year: 167

Figures for the years 2002-03 to 2004-05


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