For Employment Tribunal (ET) claims lodged on or after 6 May 2014, it is a legal requirement, unless an exemption applies, for the claimant to first notify the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) by completing an Early Conciliation notification form. ET claims will not be accepted unless this procedure has been followed and a formal Early Conciliation certificate has been issued.
Taking part in Early Conciliation is, however, voluntary. A potential claimant is under no obligation to try to resolve the dispute via this method, nor is an employer under any obligation to participate where the claimant does wish to conciliate. In addition, either the claimant or the employer can stop the process at any time.
The easiest method of complying with the requirement is for the prospective claimant to complete the Early Conciliation Notification form on the Acas website. Those unable to access the Internet can submit the form in the post. Information on postal applications can be obtained by telephoning 0300 123 1122. The notification form must contain the prospective claimant's name and address and the prospective respondent's name and address but does not ask for any details of the dispute.
Acas will then acknowledge receipt of the notification and a support officer will attempt to contact the claimant by telephone by the end of the following working day to explain the service and to find out more about the potential claim. The employer will only be contacted if the claimant decides that they do wish to proceed with Early Conciliation, in which case the case will be passed to an Acas conciliator who will aim to contact both parties by the close of the next working day.
If Acas is unable to contact the parties over a reasonable period of time, or the claimant decides that they do not wish to try to settle the matter through Early Conciliation, the case will be closed and an Early Conciliation certificate will be issued. This will include a unique reference number which must be used if the claimant decides to proceed with an ET claim.
Where the Early Conciliation service is used, conciliation is intended to take place during one calendar month, but this can be extended by a further 14 days if both parties agree that more time is needed and Acas believes that the claim is close to settlement. If, at the end of this period, the matter has not been resolved, the case will be closed and a certificate issued.
The Early Conciliation scheme is free and completely confidential. Statements made during the course of the attempted conciliation cannot be used by either party if the process fails and a claim is presented to the ET.
Conciliation will normally take place over the telephone, but a meeting chaired by the conciliator will be suggested where appropriate.
If the dispute is resolved by means of Early Conciliation, the conciliator will record the terms of the agreement on form COT3. This will then be signed by both parties and will form a legally binding contract.
Because the introduction of Early Conciliation impacts on ET time limits, the rules regarding these have been changed accordingly. When a potential claimant notifies Acas under the scheme, this will 'stop the clock' for the time limit that applies for presenting the claim to the ET. The maximum pause is therefore one month, or one month plus 14 days for claims where an extension is agreed. If Acas concludes that settlement is not possible, the pause on the limitation period will end on the day that the prospective claimant receives the Early Conciliation certificate.
An employer who believes that a workplace dispute could result in ET proceedings can also make a request for pre-claim conciliation. However, unlike an individual making a request, for employers there is no specified time within which the conciliation must take place and there is no extension to the limitation period for submitting a claim.
For more information on Early Conciliation, see the Acas website.