Addressing backlog of holiday pay claims in Northern Ireland could take more than a decade, tribunal president warns

Killymeal House, the headquarters of the Office of the Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal in Belfast, and (inset), its president, Mr Noel Kelly.
Killymeal House, the headquarters of the Office of the Industrial Tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal in Belfast, and (inset), its president, Mr Noel Kelly.

ADDRESSING the deluge of holiday pay claims in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling could take up to 14 years, the president of the Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal has warned.

In a memo sent to the tribunal’s users group, seen by The Irish News, Mr Noel Kelly said there are currently 190,229 holiday pay claims in Northern Ireland, from around 13,000 individual claimants.

The letter was sent following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to dismiss the PSNI’s appeal in the Agnew case.

The PSNI had appealed a 2019 Court of Appeal ruling to uphold a tribunal decision that officers and civilian staff were owed for a holiday pay shortfall dating back to 1998.

Legal experts said the ruling is significant for employers who did not increase holiday pay in response to various European Court of Justice decisions.

Tens of thousands of holiday pay cases had been awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court’s judgement.

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Noel Kelly said if 95% of the existing claims settle and only 5% go to a hearing, it could still produce around 650 contested cases.

He said allowing five days for case management, hearing and decision writing, it could result in a single tribunal sitting for over 14 years on holiday pay claims alone.

“And this again may well be an optimistic estimate,” he added.

“If four separate tribunals sat consistently on holiday pay cases and on nothing else, that would result in those tribunals sitting for approximately 3.5 years.”

In the memo, sent earlier this month, the judge said there are currently 240,860 claims before the tribunal with 63,269 individual claimants.

“The tribunal is currently under significant pressure,” he said. “There is simply no spare capacity.”

Excluding the multiple claims, which factor in the holiday pay claims, he said the ‘bread and butter’ cases amount to 1,150 claims with 866 claimants.

Mr Kelly said the tribunal had worked to its limit in order to reduce the number of hearings from 1,073 to 866 over the past year, which in some cases meant some judges not taking annual leave.

The tribunal currently has 7.5 full-time employment judges and a limited number of ‘fee-paid’ judges.

The tribunal president said the number of fee-paid judges will be increased, but it will be dependent on availability.

“There is clearly a need for additional full-time employment judges to be appointed,” he said.

That decision will rest with the Department for the Economy (DfE).

But Mr Kelly said the current political vacuum and budget constraints mean “it is unrealistic to expect any imminent change”.

Looking for a way forward, the tribunal president said cases will have to progress “promptly”, without repeated delays and a succession of case management hearings.

“The practical implication of this is that the only way forward is a broad brush approach to such settlements,” he said.

“There will have to be standard payments agreed between the respondents and the claimants in respect of different grades, length of service etc.

“There will inevitably be some winners or losers but there does not appear to be any alternative.”

DfE was contacted for comment.