The backlog of outstanding employment tribunal claims could pass 500,000 by spring if it continues to increase at the current rate, Citizens Advice has warned as it urged the government to provide more funding.
Even this could be a conservative estimate, the charity said, as it did not include a potential rise in claims following the wave of redundancies expected as the furlough scheme ends.
The analysis showed the backlog for individual cases (rather than groups of employees) has already passed the post-2008 financial crisis record of 36,000, with 37,000 workers in the queue.
The average wait time for single claims is 33 weeks, rising to 38 for cases related to discrimination and unfair dismissal.
Citizens Advice’s research has previously shown that disabled people, those asked to shield, and parents and carers are at least twice as likely to be facing redundancy as the rest of the working population.
The charity said it has helped 28,000 people with redundancy issues since the March lockdown, and it has seen evidence of potential employment malpractice cases which could lead to a tribunal, such as people made redundant following whistleblowing about unsafe coronavirus practices in their workplace.
Citizens Advice said that, even before the pandemic, the employment tribunal system already had over 440,000 outstanding claims from both individuals and groups of employees.
Between April and June, the number of cases resolved dropped by 56% to an 11-year low. Within this period, however, the proportion of people withdrawing their unfair dismissal case increased from 21% to 29%.
The charity conceded that employment tribunals have prioritised pandemic-related dismissal claims on health and safety grounds since June, while the government has boosted spending on the courts and tribunals services, with three of the temporary Nightingale courts hearing employment cases.
The Ministry of Justice has also provided £5.4m to charities and law centres to help with legal issues in the pandemic.
But it said additional emergency funding was needed to increase capacity further and ensure tribunals could clear the backlog.
Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Workers who have been treated unfairly need to know employers that break the rules will no longer have lengthy waiting times on their side. Employment tribunals need more emergency funding, and ultimately workers need a one-stop shop to protect their employment rights.”
Sarah Evans, an employment lawyer at London firm Constantine Law, agreed that the current efforts to deal the cases were unlikely to stop the backlog rising.
“Since the abolition of fees, the number of claims issued has risen steadily, and this will continue to be the case simply because of the volume of dismissals, and because of businesses in real trouble trying to survive and reducing jobs.
“Judges and staff are no doubt doing their all to address backlogs – we regularly receive correspondence, judgments and directions issued by judges in Manchester clearly working over weekends for example. But this will not be enough.”
Separately, figures analysed by compliance training company DeltaNet International revealed that claims made to the employment tribunal are up 25% over the past five years, with cases alleging sexual orientation discrimination, disability discrimination, religion or belief discrimination, and an absence of a written pay statement all more than doubling in that time.