APRIL will be a busy month in employment law, with a number of important changes coming into force.

Most significantly, the qualifying period for unfair dismissal will rise from one to two years.

Employees with fewer than two years of service will be unable to claim that their employer dismissed them without a fair reason, or without following a fair procedure.

Employers, who may welcome this change, should be aware that the new rules will only apply to new employees who join on or after April 6.

Furthermore, the right of employees to claim that they have been discriminated against will not be affected, and will continue to apply from day one of their employment.

In the employment tribunals, April will see the introduction of significant, procedural changes.

From next month, most unfair dismissal cases will be heard by a legally qualified judge sitting alone, without the two lay members who have in the past accompanied them.

It remains to be seen whether this will have an impact on the decisions that are being made.

As a general rule, witnesses in tribunal hearings will also no longer be required to read out their pre-prepared, written statements.

This should improve consistency between tribunals (practice on this currently varies from place to place) and reduce the length of hearings.

In April, the size of the deposits an employment tribunal can order a party to pay in order to continue proceedings will double from £500 to £1,000.

The cost awards that can be made against a party will also increase from £10,000 to £20,000.

Such changes could be seen as helping to deter weaker claims.

However, as there is no proposal to also change the circumstances in which such orders are made, they are likely to remain a rare occurrence.

The bulk of employers, who are not involved in litigation, will nonetheless still be affected by April’s changes to the rates of various statutory benefits.

The rate of statutory maternity pay, for example, will rise from £128.73 to £135.45 and statutory sick pay will increase from £124.88 to £135.45.

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