Each April, a series of changes are announced to employment law, and this year the changes have been particularly significant.

On the whole, the government has instigated changes for the better which will benefit employers by reducing unnecessary administration, encouraging recruitment and offering additional protection. Employees will similarly benefit from the changes with clearer rights, faster tribunals and statutory pay increases aligning with the current climate.

Here is our guide to the main changes that you need to know about:

1) Qualifying period for unfair dismissal increases

The most important change, which has taken place is that anyone employed on, or after 6 April 2012 will have a two year qualifying period before they can bring an unfair dismissal claim (this doesn’t apply to claims for discrimination, protected disclosure (whistle blowing) or various other claims).

The qualifying period for the right to receive a written statement of reasons for dismissal, on request, also increases from one to two years. The aim of the increase is to “provide more time for employers and employees to resolve difficulties, give employers greater confidence in taking on people and ease the burden on the employment tribunal process”.

Anyone employed before 6 April 2012 still has a one year qualifying period, however, and will not lose any of their rights.

2) Employment tribunal procedure reformed

The tribunal procedure has been reformed in a bid to reflect the cost to employers of defending tribunal claims more accurately. This means that the maximum amount of a deposit order, which a tribunal can order a party to pay as a condition to continuing with tribunal proceedings, increases from £500 to £1,000. The maximum amount of a costs order, (without the case being referred to the county court) also increases from £10,000 to £20,000. Both these increases apply to all claims presented on or after 6 April 2012.

Witness expenses paid by the Tribunal service will also be withdrawn to minimise the cost of tribunal proceedings to the taxpayer; instead, the Employment Tribunal will have the power to direct parties to bear the expenses of any witness. This will affect any claims presented on or after 6 April 2012.

In addition, Judges will now hear unfair dismissal claims alone (as opposed to the Judge and 2 lay people; one from employers, one from employees) and witness statements will be taken “as read” at the hearing to speed things up. This means the Judge will not have the statement read out to them by the witness. Again, this applies to all cases that are heard on or after 6 April 2012.

3) Statutory maternity, paternity, adoption and sick pay increase

From 1 April 2012, the weekly rate of statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay increases from £128.73 to £135.45.
Similarly, the weekly rate of statutory sick pay has also increased, from £81.60 to £85.85, on 6 April 2012.

As of 6 April 2012, the lower earnings limit for primary Class 1 national insurance contributions increases from £102 to £107, the income tax personal allowance increases to £8,105, and the threshold at which employees pay the higher income tax rate of 40% was reduced to £34,371.

4) Calculation of staging date for pensions auto-enrolment

Starting from 1 October 2012, you will, for the first time, have to enrol workers into a suitable pension scheme and pay contributions for them. The ‘staging date’ from which you must auto-enrol employees is based on the number of employees in your PAYE scheme on 1 April 2012.

The duty to auto-enrol workers is being phased in gradually with the largest employers with 120,000 or more individuals in their PAYE scheme as of 1 April 2012, being affected first. Those with fewer than 50 individuals in their PAYE scheme on 1 April 2012, will not need to auto-enrol workers until June 2015 at the earliest.

Any change in the size of your workforce after 1 April 2012, no matter how significant, will not affect your staging date.

5) Reporting injury at work

In an effort to move towards a more common sense approach to health and safety law, changes to the accident reporting regime have been made. This means that as of April 6 2012, you are only obliged to report injuries when the worker is incapacitated for seven or more consecutive days, not three days as previously required. This does not include the day of the accident. Incapacitation means that the worker must be absent or unable to do work that they would reasonably be expected to do as part of their normal duties. The deadline by which you must report the accident increases from 10 days to 15 days.

Ministers claim that the change will reduce the number of incidents which must be reported by around 30% which will in turn save business an estimated 10,000 hours per year.

The requirement for keeping a record of all injuries resulting in more than three days of absence, however, remains unchanged so you should log such injuries in some form of accident book.

6) Definition of “independent adviser” for compromise agreements clarified

The Equality Act 2010 (EA) lists requirements that must be met to validly compromise claims, one of which is that claimants must receive independent advice. The EA excludes certain categories of people from the definition of “independent adviser”, including someone who is advising an employee about a possible claim and/or the terms of a compromise agreement. The EA is being amended to clarify that a lawyer who has been involved in negotiating exit terms or bringing a claim on an employee’s behalf can also be their ‘independent adviser’ for the purposes of the compromise agreement.

Although this is beneficial, it is simply rectifying the previous Equality Act wording which was unhelpful at best. A small change for the better but not particularly ground breaking.