Unfair dismissal qualifying periods, tribunal procedures, apprenticeship contracts and statutory maternity pay are all set to alter this month

April is a standard time of the year for employment law changes to come in to force and this year they reflect the Government’s wholesale reform of regulation.

Unfair dismissal
Perhaps the most significant change is an increase in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal from one to two years. The higher threshold will only apply to those starting employment on or after 6 April – the change is not retrospective.

The Government expects the changes to save employers £6million a year and cut the number of unfair dismissal claims by 2,000 annually. But some lawyers believe employees will simply switch claims as the new qualifying period “does not apply where dismissal is for reasons such as discrimination or whistleblowing”, for which protection continues to apply from day one of employment.

A number of procedural changes take effect from 6 April. Employment judges sitting alone (in other words, without the usual two lay panel members) will now be the default position to hear unfair dismissal cases, and all cases in the Employment Appeal Tribunal will be heard by an employment judge alone, unless the judge directs otherwise. This is a cost-saving measure, not supported by responses to the Government consultation, or by tribunal judges. The Government will review the situation after a year.

Other tribunal changes include doubling maximum costs awards, from £10,000 to £20,000, and deposit orders (paid in by claimants or respondents as a condition of a case with little prospect of success being allowed to proceed) from £500 to £1,000. These will be means tested

Witness statements will henceforth be taken as read, unless an employment judge directs otherwise, and the parties to a claim will be liable for witness expenses, rather than this being state-funded.

From 6 April a new ‘prescribed form’ apprenticeship agreement will be available, subtly changing the status of apprentices engaged under it in law. The agreement must contain the basic terms of employment required under section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, and a statement of the skill being acquired. It would entitle the apprentice to the more generous age related rate of the National Minimum Wage rather than the apprentice rate and could be terminated more easily than previous apprenticeship contracts.

Statutory pay
Rates for statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay increase in line with the Retail Price Index. From the 1 April the current weekly rate of £128.73 rises by 5.2 per cent to £135.45, and from 6 April, statutory sick pay rises from £81.60 to £85.85. The weekly earnings threshold rises from £102 to £107.

For any help or advice on these or other HR items please contact me at mnewman@ukemploymentlawadvice.co.uk or on 07899697172.

Michael Newman