This is one of the key questions you will want to know the answer to before you start employment tribunal proceedings; and having a reasonably realistic view of the value of your claim is essential if you are to negotiate sensibly, too.
The answer depends on the type of claim and a whole host of other specific circumstances, but it’s possible to give a few general pointers. In most cases, the idea will be to compensate you for what you’ve lost by reason of the unlawful conduct that forms the basis of your claim. There are exceptions, but they tend to involve fairly small sums. If your employment has ended, your main argument will be about lost earnings. If your claim is for discrimination, you will be making a claim for injury to feelings as well: most awards fall somewhere in the range £5,000 – £15,000, and awards over £25,000 are rare. If discrimination has caused significant injury to your health, you will be looking for an award for that, too: your starting point in assessing this is probably the Judicial Studies Board’s Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases (9th ed, OUP £21.99)
In any case where you are claiming lost earnings because you have lost your job, you will be under a duty to ‘mitigate’ your loss. What that means is that just because you’ve been dismissed, however unfair (or discriminatory) the dismissal, you can’t expect to sit back and claim lost earnings for the rest of your career. You are expected to try to find another job. If there are good reasons why you can’t, or why any job you are likely to get will be for a much lower wage than you were earning before, you’ll need to be able to explain. (See ‘Mitigation‘) It is fairly rare that tribunals award compensation to cover more than a year or two’s lost earnings – and a few months is more usual. For the kinds of circumstances that might persuade them to look at a longer period, see ‘Push your luck,’ and ‘The mummy track.’
There’s a limit, currently £66,200, on what you can recover as compensation for most types of unfair dismissal – but most awards get nowhere near that limit. There’s no limit in theory to what you can get for discrimination or for a whistle-blowing dismissal, but that doesn’t mean that awards have to be huge. In 2006/2007 (2007/2008 figures are not yet available), the median award for unfair dismissal was £3,800; and the medians for race, sex and disability discrimination cases were about £7,000, £6,700 and £8,200 respectively.
In particular, don’t let newspaper reports of awards in the hundreds of thousands, or even milllions, give you the wrong idea. Tribunals do occasionally make very large awards – and those, of course, are the ones that hit the headlines – but they are rare. The best way of getting a huge award is to have an extremely well-paid job to start with: if you’re being paid in the hundreds of thousands every year, then you’ll clock up large losses in a short period out of work. People earning normal salaries will only get large awards if they can show that they are likely to suffer a very long period of future loss. That – because of the duty to mitigate – is usually difficult.