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Signposting

When writing or speaking to the employment tribunal it is very useful to ‘signpost’ what you are going to say. The aim is to give the tribunal an indication of where you are going, so that they are able to follow you.

Young barristers are often taught to say something like “I have three submissions to make. Firstly, that the claim was made within the three month time limit. Secondly, that if it was not, time was extended by the grievance procedure. Thirdly, if the claim is out of time, then it would be just and equitable to extend time. I will now deal with my first submission, which is that the claim was within the three month time limit.”

Beginning in this way has two important advantages. It tells the tribunal what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. You should not assume that either of these things is obvious to the tribunal. And it will be easier for them to understand (and therefore easier for them to accept) your submissions if they know what you are getting at. If they do not understand where you are trying to take them, there is a real risk that an important point will be lost, because they did not understand its relevance while you were making it. Even if the tribunal is able to follow you, you are making them work unnecessarily.

The other advantage of signposting is that it makes sure that you have some clear idea of what you are going to say and what order you are going to say it in. This is valuable, particularly if you have to depart from a planned speech to deal with the tribunal’s questions.

The potential disadvantage of signposting is that it can easily become robotic. There is a real danger you will find yourself saying something like “I know turn to my second submission, on which I will make three points. My first point has two sub-points. The first subpoint raises two issues…” This is confusing, as well as sounding foolish.

This is easy to avoid by remembering that tribunals understand about signposting (they did or do it themselves as advocates and most representatives will use it) and will pick up quite subtle indications. This means that saying “Sir, we say that the claim was made inside three months and that in any event time was extended when we raised a grievance. But if the claim is out of time we say that time should be extended.” is just as effective, and less robotic, as explicitly numbering your points.

Signposting is also useful in cross-examination. It is not generally useful to signpost your whole cross-examination at the beginning, but an occasional indication of where you are going next will help the tribunal and the witness. Cross-examination should be made up almost entirely of questions, but it is perfectly proper, and very useful to say things like “I’m now going to ask you some questions about the July meeting.”

In a factually complex case it may even be useful to ask some questions for the purposes of signposting. For example, you might ask “This was a meeting between you and my client?”, expecting the answer “yes”. Then “And you were meeting to discuss the allegations of theft”, again expecting the answer “yes”. Such questions will not take the evidence further forward, but act as a quick reminder of what the meeting was about. It is important that any such questions be quick and to the point. The idea is to give a short reminder, not to rehash evidence that has already been given.

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