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Problems at work

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    Get advice early

    Employment law is complicated and few people have a clear idea of all their rights at work. If you think your employer has treated you unfairly, it is important to get legal advice at the earliest opportunity. In nearly all cases there are steps you must follow with ACAS before you can take a complaint to an employment tribunal, as well as specific and tight deadlines for making such complaints. Generally, the longer you leave a problem, the fewer options you may have.

    A solicitor can:

    • explain your options
    • tell you if you have a legal case against your employer
    • help you decide whether your case is worth taking further, and
    • explain what you should do next.

    Finding a solicitor

    To find a solicitor who deals with employment law, visit our Find a Solicitor website and search under 'Employment'. If you need more help using Find a Solicitor, call us on +44 (0)20 7320 5650 (Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:30) or email us.

    If you are a trade union member, you may be able to get legal advice from a solicitor appointed by the union.

    Starting the process

    Once you have found a solicitor, you should explain your situation briefly over the phone and set a date for a meeting. It may be helpful to email the history ahead of a meeting.

    Make sure that you mention the dates of the events you are concerned about. If you plan to take someone with you to the meeting, mention this and ask if there are any documents you need to bring. If in doubt, take documents with you.

    What your solicitor will need to know

    At the meeting your solicitor is likely to ask you:

    • how long you have worked for your employer
    • how much you earn
    • the details of your problem at work
    • what events have led you to your current situation
    • whether you have any relevant documents
    • whether there are any documents which you do not have that might be relevant to the case, and
    • what, if anything, you have already done to sort the matter out.

    Exploring the alternatives

    Once you have explained your circumstances in detail, your solicitor can explain your options. If your solicitor believes you have a case and you want to take it further, you need to decide how you are going to do this.

    If you have not already done so, you may need to try to sort the problem out with your employer direct before taking any other action. Your solicitor can help you set out your case and, if appropriate, try to negotiate a settlement for you. If you are happy to carry out negotiations directly with your employer, your solicitor can offer useful advice on how best to go about doing this. Ask about claim time limits which are not extended unless you have begun ACAS Early Conciliation which can extend time to claim for a month and a further 2 week extension if both sides agree.

    If you cannot solve the problem quickly with your employer direct, an employment tribunal may be your best option. If so, your solicitor can help by preparing yourcase or representing you at the tribunal.

    Following your employer's procedures

    It is important to try to sort out your problem with your employer direct first, either informally or using their formal complaints/grievance procedure.

    If you have started using your employer's complaints procedures or if your employer has started to take action against you (for example, about your behaviour, the quality of your work, your ability to do your job or your attendance) you should try to go to any meetings that are arranged and use any appeal procedures your employer has in place. An employment solicitor can review papers with you and perhaps advise you of points to cover at a meeting.

    You should try to solve your problem with your employer direct because:

    • matters can often be sorted out quite quickly this way
    • employment tribunals can reduce your compensation if you haven't used your employer’s internal procedures first before taking your case to them

    Time limits

    The time limits for taking your claim to a tribunal depend on what your complaint is about.

    Most Emplymemt Tribunal claims mean you must make your claim to the tribunal within three months of the date you were dismissed (i.e. you must lodge your claim no later than three months less one day from the day you were dismissed allowing for any extension of time by ACAS Early Conciliation).

    If your claim is about statutory redundancy payments, you have six months to make your claim to the tribunal, from the date you were dismissed. If your claim is about a breach of contract your employer can counter-claim against you and it is best to obtain legal advice before making a breach of contract claim.

    A claim will need to set out:

    • the facts in chronological order and what employment claims you are making. It is likely you will need advice about this because of the numerous types of employment law claim which can be made

    The deadlines will rarely s be extended by the tribunal, and only in special circumstances. We have set out above a brief summary of the basic rules but because the rules on time limits are complicated it is worth getting advice from a solicitor as soon as you can to make sure you make your claim in time.

    Settlement agreements

    If you can reach an agreement with your employer without going to a tribunal, this can be recorded in a 'settlement agreement’ (previously called a compromise agreement)'. This is a legal document which confirms the terms of the settlement you have agreed, in exchange for which you give up your legal claims against your employer. Your employer will usually make a contribution to your legal costs as part of the agreement. The law requires that you obtain independent legal advice before a settlement will be valid.

    Read about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)

    Employment tribunals

    An employment tribunal is chaired by a lawyer, the Employment Judge, who will be assisted by two independent 'wing' members with experience of employment relations in discrimination and some other types of claim. It is up to the tribunal to:

    • make findings about the facts and which evidence is preferred if there is a dispute
    • apply the law, and
    • decide whether your claim against your employer is upheld or not

    Employment Tribunal Decisions are either announced straight away or follow in writing. If the tribunal decides in your favour, it has the power to award you compensation. Or if you are found to have been unfairly dismissed, it must consider ordering your employer to give you your job back if you want it, though this is rare. Compensation is more often awarded to a successful claimant.

    If you win your tribunal case, often much of the award is simply to compensate you for the actual losses you have suffered. In 2014/15 the average award for unfair dismissal claims was £12,362 and the maximum for an uncapped claim was £238,216. In the period April to June 2014, the average time to process a single Employment Tribunal claim was 38 weeks.

    Claiming unfair dismissal

    Generally, you are entitled to make a claim for unfair dismissal once you have been employed for two years, full or part-time. However, in certain circumstances a dismissal may be ‘automatically unfair’ in which case the 2 year rule does not apply This means that you are protected by law from the first day of your employment. Automatically unfair dismissals include those for :

    • discrimination as recognised by law
    • whistle-blowing (telling your employer or someone else about anything illegal or dangerous you know is happening at work)
    • health and safety issues, and
    • asserting certain legal rights, such as your right to a written contract, a minimum wage, paid leave, leave for family reasons including pregnancy or maternity, a written statement of your terms and conditions of employment, or an itemised pay statement.


    If you believe that you are receiving treatment for any of the reasons set out below, you may have a discrimination claim. You are protected against certain types of discrimination based on any of the following:

    • Your sex (including reasons related to being pregnant, being transsexual or being married)
    • Your sexuality (sexual orientation)
    • Your race, including your skin colour, nationality, and ethnic background
    • Your religion and beliefs
    • Your disability
    • Your age

    You can make a claim to the tribunal if unlawful treatment happens at any stage of your employment. This includes how you were treated before you were employed, say when you applied for the job and were interviewed, as well as during your employment or after your employment ends. Your solicitor can tell you more about this.

    Solicitors' charges

    Charges can vary between solicitors. They depend on:

    • the experience and knowledge of the solicitor; and
    • how complicated your case is.

    If your solicitor acts as a consultant in helping you to prepare your case but does not actually represent you, their charges are likely to be based on an hourly rate. However, if the case goes to a tribunal, other types of fee arrangement may be more suitable. You could, for example, agree a 'contingency fee' where, if you win, the solicitor gets an agreed percentage of the pay-out. Your solicitor can run you through the options.


    Legal aid is not available to pay for a solicitor to represent you at a tribunal.

    Trade union members are normally entitled to free legal help from a trade union official or from a solicitor employed by the union. Check with your workplace representative or your union's regional office.

    Some household contents insurance policies also cover legal expenses for claims in an employment tribunal, so it is worth checking your policy to see if it covers this. You have a free choice of solicitor once a claim begins.

    Tribunals can order that you pay the employer's costs if you have acted unreasonably by making your claim. Your employer might have to pay your costs if they have acted unreasonably in the way it has defended your claim. Generally, each sides pays its own costs in the Employment Tribunal. You do not get costs if you win as a rule. Your solicitor can give you advice about this.

    An information leaflet on employment law is available in the following formats:

    Alternative formats

    We can make this information available in other formats and selected languages on request. Please email for more information.


    While we have made every effort to provide accurate information, the law is always changing and affects each person differently. This information is no substitute for specific advice about you personally and we will not be liable to you if you rely on this information.