The Employment Bar

In a nutshell

The Employment Bar deals with any and every sort of claim arising from the relations or breakdown of relations between employees and employers. Disputes relating to individuals and small groups of employees are generally resolved at or before reaching an Employment Tribunal. Such 'statutory' claims may relate to redundancy; unfair dismissal; discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or age; workplace harassment; breach of contract; and whistle-blowing. Previously employment judges sat with two 'wing members' (one from a trades union and one from a business background); now they sit alone. Appeals are heard by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).

In low-value cases claimants often represent themselves, meaning a barrister acting for a respondent company faces a lay opponent. In complex, high-value cases both parties usually seek specialist legal representation from solicitors and barristers. 

Employees and employers may also bring claims in civil court. High-value claims, applications for injunctions to prevent the breach of restrictive covenants, and disputes over team moves or use of trade secrets are usually dealt with in the County Courts or the High Court. These disputes make up a significant proportion of the work undertaken by senior members at sets at the top of the market. 

Realities of the job

  • For pupils and juniors, most advocacy takes place in employment tribunals or the EAT, where the atmosphere and proceedings are less formal. Hearings are conducted with everyone sitting down and barristers do not wear wigs. The emphasis is on oral advocacy.
  • A corporate respondent might pay for a QC, while the applicant’s pocket may only stretch to a junior. Solicitor advocates feature prominently in tribunals.
  • Tribunals follow the basic pattern of examination in chief, cross-examination and closing submissions; however, barristers have to modify their style, especially when appearing against someone who is unrepresented.
  • Employment specialists need great people skills. Clients frequently become emotional or stressed, and the trend for respondent companies to name an individual (say, a manager) as co-respondent means there may be several individuals in the room with complex personal, emotional and professional issues at stake.
  • Few juniors act only for applicants or only for respondents. Most also undertake civil or commercial cases. Some undertake criminal matters.
  • Employment law changes quite rapidly and sometimes cases are stayed while others with similar points are heard on appeal.

Current issues

  • Changes to legal aid introduced in April 2013 have removed public funding from all employment cases except discrimination claims.
  • Since Employment Tribunal fees were raised to £1,250 there has been an increase in claimants representing themselves and a 70% decrease in the number of cases being heard, leading to accusations of a 'tax on justice'. In a December 2015 an official report by Lord Justice Briggs gave its backing to a proposal by Professor Richard Susskind that online courts be used for low-value employment claims below £25,000.
  • Many UK workers' rights and employment protections derive from the EU. However, most of these – such as the Working Time Directive – are enshrined in UK law, so are unlikely to change as the result of Brexit as repealing them would be both a legal and political nightmare.

Some tips

  • Get involved with the Free Representation Unit. No pupillage application will look complete without some involvement of this kind.
  • Practically any kind of job will give you first-hand experience of being an employee – an experience that is not to be underestimated.
  • High-profile cases are regularly reported in the press, so there’s no excuse for not keeping abreast of the area.