Calls to replace employment tribunals to tackle ‘endemic’ sexual harassment

Employment tribunals should be replaced with courts dedicated to employment and equality issues in order to ensure victims of sexual harassment receive justice, according to one of Scotland’s leading feminist organisations.

Engender warned that the current three month time limit for raising a claim was a “clear barrier to justice,” with significant financial barriers also preventing women from speaking out.

It believes that once the relevant powers have been devolved to Holyrood, the new system should be put in place so as to increase recourse to justice and accountability for victims and survivors of workplace sexual harassment.

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In the meantime, the feminist advocacy organisation is also calling on the UK government to implement a series of measures to improve the system.

They include the introduction of punitive damages for employers at tribunals, and the requirement for employers to pay the legal costs of employees if the former loses a harassment discrimination case.

The recommendations are set out in a new report by Engender scrutinising what more can be done to tackle endemic sexual and sexist workplace harassment.

The Edinburgh-headquartered body said that while sexual harassment was a form of violence against women and a violation of human rights, it remained poorly understood by employers and the public at large.

“The Scottish Government and other public bodies must work to reframe sexual harassment as an issue of women’s equality that is rooted in sexism and sits within the spectrum and violence against women and girls,” the report concludes.

Catherine Murphy, executive director of Engender. Picture: Becky Duncan

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It points that that victims of sexual or sexist harassment face multiple barriers when raising a claim, including the financial cost of doing so, the inaccessibility of the system, and the time constraints imposed under the Equality Act.

Under the existing system of ‘early reconciliation’, claimants must notify Acas within three months of the date that alleged harassment last occured.

However, Engender argues that such an approach is inappropriate for many victims of sexual harassment, given victims of traumatic events may need time to process what has happened to them.

“Time constraints place pressure on victims and survivors to assess multiple and complex complaints processes within a very short timeframe, while also trying to process traumatic or stressful experiences,” its report notes.

It proposes increasing the time limit to 12 months, which it describes as a “more realistic period in which to begin coming to terms with events.”

The report, entitled ‘Enough is Enough: Tackling Workplace Sexual Harassment in Scotland’, also reasons that Acas lacks the necessary expertise to adequately handle such cases.

It adds that whilst agreements made as part of conciliation proceedings are legally binding, they are “extremely unlikely” to change workplace policies and practices.

Engender is also calling on the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service to issue to presidential guidance on dealing with sexual harassment cases, including mandatory training for judges, and the adoption of special measures, such as the those in place for vulnerable witnesses in criminal courts, as the “default approach.”

Other recommendations in the report include the establishment of an independent body to receive complaints and investigate “patterns of concern” at employers, and the adoption of a standalone sexual harassment policy.

Catherine Murphy, Engender’s executive director, said: “Our recommendations represent a way to begin the much-needed work to tackle sexual and sexist harassment in our workplaces.”

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