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My Department funds the Law Centre Northern Ireland to provide access to legal advice and representation on employment matters. The project provides specialist professional advice and advocacy through to the industrial tribunal process free of charge to those who otherwise would find it difficult to secure access to justice. That support is provided across Northern Ireland and is focused on the most vulnerable employees.
Employment tribunals seek to ensure at all times that the principles of the justice system are adhered to in all cases that come before them. Allowances are made for inexperienced individuals who represent themselves. This is done to ensure that the tribunals' overriding objective, namely that parties are on an equal footing, is preserved.
The Department also funds the Labour Relations Agency to offer conciliation before or during tribunal proceedings.
While the process does not include directive advice, it can provide parties with the information and assistance that they need to help them to resolve outstanding issues. The Employment Bill will extend that process so that most people facing a tribunal claim will have the offer of early conciliation before lodging a tribunal claim.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He states that the advice is available across the North, but he will understand that the Law Centre, which does excellent work in this regard, is based in Belfast and Derry, and that leaves a substantial hinterland in which it is more difficult to access that type of personal legal advice and assistance. I am sure that he will acknowledge that a lack of that is a key access-to-justice issue. Has he plans or are there opportunities in his Department to further resource that provision of assistance to make sure that as many people as possible can avail themselves of it across the Six Counties?
I would not want to rule out additional resource at this stage, but it is important to bear in mind the context of what we face with the resourcing of employment law interventions in general. The Department has a tight budget, and we face budget cuts, and that includes the regulatory services under which employment relations fall.
I interested in and take on board the Member's comments and may engage with the Law Centre to see whether it is picking up subregional disparities in access and whether there is a problem. If we are not adhering fully to equality of access across Northern Ireland, we will seek to address that.
It is important that Members are aware that, on the back of the creation of the revised early conciliation service under the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), which is part of the Employment Bill, there will be additional pressures in relation to the LRA itself. So we have to find additional resource to ensure that we can fully support what should be more efficient and effective interventions for employers and employees that, where possible, will avoid the much more confrontational engagement that you find in a tribunal.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Would he agree that it might be advantageous to make industrial tribunals more friendly to the public? Take them as far away as possible from the gowns, wigs, oaths and all the trappings of those big courts that scare the life out of people. What is being done to make industrial tribunals friendly to ordinary people, who, perhaps, would not need a battery of legal support if tribunals were doing what they were originally supposed to do?
I thank the Member for his question; it opens up a far-reaching debate in many respects. Tribunals are a legal process. While the original intent was that people would not go there with batteries of lawyers on either side, that is their entitlement in a legal process and things have moved in that direction, although not every employee or employer will choose to have legal representation or be able to afford it.
The process in tribunals is not that of a court; it is that of a tribunal. What we are now terming employment judges, and indeed the panels, are keen to ensure that they can dispense business in an efficient and effective manner. It is worth putting on record our appreciation of the great strides made in recent years on case management to ensure that cases progress efficiently.
It is important to recognise that we are trying to move as many cases as possible outside the tribunal process and have them addressed through different forms of alternative dispute resolution, which is in the interests of employees and employers. Ultimately, there will be cases that need to go to a tribunal, and it is people's right to take a case to a tribunal. Where possible, however, we want to avail ourselves of more cost-efficient and effective interventions at an earlier stage.