It has long been normal practice in the employment tribunals to have witnesses read their statements aloud.
On the face of things, this is a bit odd. There are times where it is necessary or desirable; one of the parties not being able to read, or not being able to read English, is an obvious example. But employment judges and tribunal members can all read – so mostly it just takes up time to no very useful purpose.
The EAT has now considered this practice in Mehta v Child Support Agency, and given fairly detailed guidance which can be summarised as follows:
(1) There’s no rule that statements have to be read aloud, and doing so will often be a waste of time.
(2) It will sometimes be desirable to have some or all of a statement read aloud, especially the statement of an unrepresented claimant. Reasons for this may include: to enable claimants to feel they have had their say; to amplify or explain a confused or inadequate statement; to explain very technical material; to allow the witness to settle before facing cross-examination.
(3) It doesn’t have to be all or nothing: it is permissible to have some parts of some statements read aloud.
(4) Deciding what to do about this is a matter for the tribunal in the exercise of its case management powers.
(5) In making these decisions, tribunals should proceed where possible by agreement. Where they have to impose a decision about which parts of which statements are to be read aloud, they should be careful to explain what they are doing so as to dispel any impression that the parties are being treated differently.
(6) Hearings have to be in public, so if a statement is taken as read, copies must be made available to members of the public attending the hearing.
It is possible that this will cause a significant change in tribunal practice. Until now, if anyone has wanted to take some or all statements as read, they’ve had to make a case for it. That would often meet with pretty stiff opposition from the tribunal – albeit not necessarily amounting to much more than ‘That’s not how we do things.’
Mehta may change that so that from now on, parties who wish to have some or all of their statements read aloud will have to persuade the tribunal that it’s a good use of time.