Some 24 organisations have called on the Lord Chancellor to extend time limits for harassment and discrimination claims from three to six months in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
They said the crisis has made the time limit for launching proceedings in the employment tribunal increasingly difficult to meet.
Co-ordinated by Suzanne McKie QC of Farore Law, signatories to the letter to Robert Buckland include Liberty, JUSTICE, Law Centres Network, Advice UK, Disability Law Service and Centre for Women’s Justice.
It said: “Many law firms and not-for-profit advice agencies are furloughing staff, reducing services and limiting the number of new claims they take on.
“As the time limit for harassment and discrimination cases runs from what the tribunal concludes is the last unlawful act, this puts individuals without the benefit of specialist legal advice at a particular disadvantage, as they may not be able to identify when their time will run out.
“Further problems arise from the fact that these kinds of claims are more likely to prompt internal grievance investigations than other types of claim and those resulting processes are being delayed significantly by the ongoing lockdown.
“Nonetheless, limitation periods run on, meaning people are currently forced to start the ACAS process and issue proceedings before internal investigations are completed.”
The groups said that while judges could extend the time limit when it was ‘just and equitable’, this was a “high and uncertain bar upon which no prudent claimant would ever rely”.
The only option was to temporarily extend to the time limits, which required legislation, the letter said.
Ms McKie said: “This is a small ask that could make such a big difference to victims of harassment and discrimination.”
Chilli Reed, executive director of Advice UK, added: “AdviceUK members are seeing a significant increase in employment enquiries as a direct result of COVID- 19. This increased demand comes at a time when advisers are facing real challenges to deliver a service remotely.
“In order to protect vulnerable employees, it is essential that the time limits in discrimination and harassment cases are extended as a matter of urgency.”
The other groups to sign the letter are: Runnymede Trust, Equally Ours, Rights of Women, Maternity Action, Pregnant then Screwed, Working Families, Eastern European Resource Centre, Focus on Labour Exploitation, One Loud Voice, Improper, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Citizens Advice Redbridge, Derbyshire Law Centre, Kirklees Law Centre, North Kensington Law Centre, and Plumstead Community Law Centre.