Tribunals are special courts outside of the mainstream
Administrative Tribunals have been in existence since 1799. They are an inferior court. Peach Grey and Company v Summers (1995)1 confirmed that tribunal is an inferior court. They are part of the legal system even though they may not be considered as important as the regular court system. They are small, informal, specialised courts set up by an act of parliament to hear and decide upon disputes which may arise between the state and citizens or between two citizens/individuals.
Even though tribunals are less informal than the normal court system, their proceedings follow the same principles of accepted justice used by the courts in having a fair hearing for both sides and open and unbiased decision-making. Tribunals are independent in the exercise of theirs various powers. They exercise judicial functions and are subject to supervision by the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court through its supervisory jurisdiction.
Tribunals play such an important role in reducing the number of cases that would have to be heard in court. They have enabled a quick turnover of cases, many being settled out of court. The tribunal system handles over a million cases/disputes each year. Cases are usually heard by a lawyer/chairperson and two lay persons who have particular expertise in the tribunal area e.g. doctors on the medical appeal tribunal and employer and employees in the employment tribunal.
1 Held: Intentional interference with witnesses in proceedings before an Employment Tribunal - which exercises the judicial power of the state - is a contempt of court and punishable as such.
Tribunals cases that are presented and heard comprise as follows:-
Immigration Adjudicators deal with appeals in providing fair, expeditious, and uniform interpretation and application of immigration law. This includes adjudication of immigration cases at the administrative court level and at the administrative appeal level.
Immigration Appeal Tribunals deals with appeals against decisions made by the Home Secretary and his officials in immigration, asylum and nationality matter
Pension Appeal Tribunals hear appeals from ex-servicemen or women who have had their claims for a War Pension rejected by the Secretary of State for Defence.
Vat and Duties Tribunals hear appeals on decision of the General Commissioners of Income Tax, Special Commissioners of Income Tax.
The Social Security and Child Commission/Support Tribunals deal with child support, income support, incapacity benefit, employment support allowance, disability living allowance, attendance allowance and retirement pensions.
The Land Tribunals resolve certain disputes concerning land.
Transport Tribunals deal with appeals concern approved driving instructors, trainee driving instructors, and training provider appeals.
Employment Appeal Tribunals determine disputes between employers and employees over employment rights.
The Rent Tribunals deal with rent and leasehold disputes.
In 1957, the Franks Committee was commissioned to examine the mechanism of tribunals The committee reported that the tribunal system will developed to be an increasing important part of the legal system. Recommendations were made to have tribunal procedures discernible by “openness, fairness and impartiality." The Franks Committee recommendation stated that tribunals procedures should be head in public and the reasons behind the decisions should be examined. Parties involved should know their rights, should be aware of the cases against them and they should be able to present their case fully. It also stated that tribunals should be free of undue influences from any government department concerned with their subject area. Most of the Frank Committee recommendations were implemented by the Tribunals and Inquiries Act (1958). This act was repealed and replace by the Tribunals and Inquiries Act 1971, which was in turn repealed and replace by the Tribunal and Inquiries Act 1992.
In 2000, Sir Andrew Laggatt, a retired Lord Justice of Appeal, was asked by the Lord Chancellor to scrutinize the tribunal system. He needed to look at the funding and management of tribunals, their structure and standards and to ascertain whether they complied with the Human Rights Act 1998.
His review criticises:-
Dependence on government – The relevant government ministry provided administrative support, selected the tribunal members, paid their fees and expenses and laid down the tribunal procedures. This meant that tribunals neither appeared to be, nor were in fact, self-regulating, as these ministries had the entire command over the final judgment.
The lack of accessibility to the public - In some cases the citizens are advised of the procedures to deal with their specific dispute but in other cases more consideration should be given in publishing citizens’ rights.
They were not user-friendly - Tribunals were originally designed to be user-friendly, providing easy access to the justice but over the time it had become difficult for a claimant to take their case to a tribunal.
Lack of Coherence - Most tribunals operated separately from each other using different practices and procedures. As a result of these the system was found to be incoherent and thus not providing a consistently high standard of service.
Sir Andrew Leggatt stated that the most important objective of the report was to recommend a system that is independent, user friendly, coherent, professional, and cost-effective. Tribunals for Users: One System, One Service was birthed from this scrutiny/review and was published in 2001. This report noted that there were over seventy different administrative tribunals dealing with over one million cases per year.
Tribunals have several advantages. The foremost advantage of tribunals is the time frame with which cases are dealt with. Cases come to court fairly quickly and many are dealt with well within a day. The parties involved know the exact date and time at which a case will be heard thus minimising time-wasting for all of them.
Tribunals usually do not charge fees and each party usually pay their own cost rather than the loser having to pay it all. Parties are encouraged to forgo legal representations as lawyers only complicate these proceedings with legal jargons.
There is a relief of congestion in the ordinary courts because if the volume of cases heard by tribunals was transferred to the ordinary courts, the system would be completely overloaded thus having disputes wait a long time to be heard.
The informal setting of tribunals is another advantage but some tribunals cases are at a risk of losing its state of informality as a result of the reforms that were introduced by the Tribunal Court and Enforcement Act (2007), particularly now that some cases are heard by judges. Until 2007 the tribunals all had their own rules of procedure but under the 2007 Act a new Tribunal Procedure Committee has been established with the responsibility for tribunal rules of procedure. It has a cohesive set of procedural rules for the tribunals which are heavily influenced by the civil procedural rules introduced by Lord Woolf. This advantage is slowing becoming a disadvantage.
Other disadvantages of tribunals are lack of openness and unavailability of state funding. The fact that some tribunals are held in private can lead to suspicion about the fairness of the decisions made. Even though the procedures are general informal, the law with which some tribunals fall under was complex and the adjudicative process is sometimes highly technical.
There is also an unfair balance between represented and unrepresented parties. Individuals who were financial secured and could hire legal representation found themselves at an advantage against those who cannot afford legal representation.
In conclusion, tribunals are extremely useful in its own right. There are many strengths and also there are some weaknesses associated with tribunals. They are the right forum in dealing with some cases/disputes but there is also the Tribunal and Inquiries Act 1992 which provides for appeals to the High Court on points of law from some of the most important tribunals. These are more complex and very expensive under-takings. The Tribunal Court and Enforcement Act (2007) now provide a unified appeal structure for the tribunal system. Under the Act decision of the First-tier Tribunal may be appealed to the Upper Tribunal and a decision of the Upper Tribunal may be appealed to the Court of Appeal. It must be noted and applauded that the tribunal system has truly grown up since 1799.