This guide is intended to give a brief overview of what you can expect to happen if attending an employment tribunal hearing, and what you can expect if giving evidence.
Getting to the tribunal
When you get to the employment tribunal you will have to sign in. You should then make your way to the appropriate waiting room. There are separate waiting rooms for 'claimants' - the employee or former employee bringing the claim - and 'respondents' - the employer against whom the claim is brought.
The clerk to the tribunal will take both parties and their witnesses and representatives from the waiting room into the tribunal itself when the employment judge and the panel members are ready. It is customary for the employer to sit on the left-hand side facing the tribunal panel, with the employee sitting on the right-hand side. In Scotland, witnesses cannot sit in the tribunal and listen to what other witnesses are saying until they have given their evidence. In England and Wales, this is allowed.
When you enter the tribunal itself you will see that the room is laid out in a particular manner. Generally there will be a tribunal panel of three people, although some cases will be heard by an employment judge alone. The legally-qualified employment judge runs the hearing, and will sit in the middle of the panel. The rest of the panel will consist of two non-legally qualified lay members, one from an employer-focussed background and one from an employee/trade union background. This panel is often called the 'industrial jury'.
All the tables and chairs in front of the panel are for the parties or their representatives. There is then an area at the back of the tribunal room for witnesses, members of the public and the press.
Start of the hearing
When the tribunal starts, the employment judge will introduce himself. All the parties and their representatives sit down, even when addressing the tribunal. Evidence is also given with the witnesses sitting down. The tribunal is less formal than a court, and there will be no one wearing wigs or gowns.
If you are giving evidence you will be called to the witness table when it is your turn to give evidence. You will then be sworn in or, if you are not religious, asked to affirm. The tribunal clerk will ask you for your preference on this point before the hearing begins. You will then sit down and will initially be asked to give your name for the record.
When you are giving evidence, a copy of any documents the parties are relying on will be in front of you on the table so that you can refer to them.
In hearings in England and Wales a witness statement has to be prepared in advance and will form the basis of your evidence. In some cases the tribunal will read your witness statement in private, possibly before the hearing starts. In other cases you will be asked to read your statement out loud. In either case your representative may refer you to a document or ask you additional questions. The employment judge may also ask you questions based on what he has read, or as you go through your statement. Whether the questions are put to you by your representative or the employment judge you should direct your answers to the employment judge. Your witness statement together with your answers to these questions forms your 'evidence in chief'.
In hearings in Scotland, witnesses are not allowed to give their evidence by means of a witness statement. Instead, they will be asked questions by their representative and the tribunal panel.
After you have given your evidence in chief you will be asked questions by the employer or its representative. This is known as 'cross-examination'. It is the job of the employer or its representative to put its case to you and it may ask leading questions in order to do so. Your representative will object to improper questions, but otherwise you cannot ask for assistance in answering a question or discuss it with others.
After you have been cross-examined, your representative may wish to re-examine you. He may ask you a few more questions to clarify some issues that might have come out of cross-examination, or which have been given the wrong 'spin' as a result of the cross-examination. The employment judge and the other two members of the panel may also ask you questions at any time, although these may be saved until the end depending on how the employment judge wants to run the hearing.
General points on giving evidence
The prospect of giving evidence may seem a little daunting and it may seem as if you are under examination and being subjected to a memory test. This is not the case. The simple rule is to give a truthful answer rather than try to get the 'right' answer – it is quite proper to say that you do not know or cannot remember the answer to something if that is the truth. You can also ask the questioner to rephrase an unclear question, or to look at a document to refresh your memory before answering a question.
The employment judge should be addressed as 'sir' or 'madam'. He will be taking a manuscript note of the evidence and will sometimes read his note back to you and ask you whether you think it is correct.
If the tribunal adjourns for a break or lunch while you are giving evidence you are not allowed to speak to any of the other witnesses or to your representative. You are not allowed to talk to anybody about the case until you have finished giving evidence and are no longer under oath. The employment judge will most likely remind you of this if you are in this position.
Both parties or their representatives make closing submissions once all the evidence has been given. This gives them the opportunity to summarise their case to the Employment Tribunal. Generally this is done orally although the tribunal will sometimes ask for submissions in writing.
Once the hearing has finished the employment judge or tribunal panel will adjourn to consider its decision. It may give its judgement orally on the day of the hearing or, in more complex cases, the decision will be reserved and a written judgement sent out to the parties at a later date.