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In its previous guise as the Industrial Tribunal, the Employment Tribunal was intended to provide an ‘easily accessible, speedy, informal and inexpensive’ route to workplace dispute resolution (Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, 1968). Whether that ideal was ever achievable is open to debate but it certainly cannot be claimed for the institution that we know today. Alongside the name change, the current specialist tribunal has undergone a series of fundamental reforms – some in recent years – which have taken it ever further away from this vision. As well as being a legalistic, adversarial and often very formal arena, the service it provides to individuals who find themselves embroiled in workplace disputes is no longer free. The imposition of fees for claimants in July 2013 has been widely criticised as representing an insurmountable barrier to access to justice for many workers, making the ET unaffordable and thus preventing the effective use of a range of employment rights such as protection against unfair dismissal and discrimination and the basic right to claim unpaid wages for work already performed. However, even before the introduction of fees, many claimants found the experience of pursuing an ET claim extremely difficult, resulting in high personal and financial costs. Feelings of bewilderment and alienation are often reported by those embroiled in a highly legalistic process, particularly if self-representing. Coupled with the psychological and financial effects of an ongoing dispute with an (often former) employer, such barriers increasingly mean that many with potentially viable claims decide to walk away rather than to pursue a resolution.

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