What is Acas?
Acas stands for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. It is a publicly funded independent organisation that aims to promote better employment relations. As well as offering advice and training on employment related issues, Acas provides an alternative to employment tribunals and aims to be confidential, fast, cost efficient and informal. Acas is entirely voluntary and all proceedings are free and confidential.
Services offered by Acas
There are three main ways of solving a dispute with Acas. They are:
- arbitration; and
The goal of conciliation is to help both sides reach a mutually acceptable agreement.
It often involves:
- establishing the issues being disputed;
- giving both parties space so they can evaluate their position and that of the other party;
- meeting both parties in private to discuss matters;
- getting both parties together to discuss matters; and
- rebuilding the relationship between the parties.
Any settlements made through Acas will be legally binding.
Before you can bring a case against your employer at an employment tribunal – for example, for unfair dismissal – you need to notify Acas of your plans to lodge such a claim. You will be offered the opportunity to use Early Conciliation which involves Acas trying to help sort out the problem with the employer without going to tribunal.
You’ll need to submit an Early Conciliation notification form and Acas will aim to contact you within two working days. They’ll go through the information you’ve provided, ask questions and assess whether they think conciliation can help. If you’re happy to take part in Early Conciliation and Acas think they can help, your claim will be passed to an Acas conciliator who will contact your employer and help try and resolve the issue. If conciliation isn’t going to help, you’ll be issued with a certificate and you can go ahead with your tribunal claim.
Arbitration differs from conciliation in that both parties agree beforehand to allow a third party to decide the result of a dispute and make an award if necessary.
Unlike tribunals and the court system, Acas avoids formal pleadings, witnesses and documentary processes. Instead it tries to be more informal and flexible. There are no strict rules pertaining to evidence and, instead of relying on legal precedent and legalistic procedures, Acas aims to take into account fairness and good conduct. Its decisions are final and it is difficult to challenge the awards.
Acas’ role is to:
- appoint arbitrators to determine the result of a case;
- provide administrative help to participants; and
- examine awards for errors that are referred back to the arbitrator.
To submit a dispute to arbitration, parties must agree in writing beforehand and outline what is being negotiated. The parties involved in the dispute determine the terms of reference or they can be drawn up with the aid of an Acas conciliator.
At least 14 days before a hearing, both parties must submit any documentation to be relied on at the hearing and a list of the people who will appear. Participants must also submit statements outlining their case at least seven days before the hearing. Hearings will be arranged by Acas at a time and place convenient for all involved.
Hearings are informal and the parties can choose who they wish to represent them. The outcome of the hearing will be an award, which will be issued within three weeks of the hearing.
An employee can withdraw their claim at any time, but employers against whom a claim has been made cannot withdraw from the scheme. Any withdrawals must be made in writing. A settlement can be reached at any point during proceedings and if one is made, the arbitrator should be informed in writing.
Arbitrators are selected for the Acas panel because of their knowledge and experience of workplace discipline. Neither party can influence the choice of arbitrator. Upon selection, the arbitrator must confirm in writing that they do not know of any circumstances that could affect their impartiality (for example, if they know one of the parties in dispute). Until the conclusion of the arbitration, it is their duty to inform ACAS of any new circumstances that could affect their judgment.
Arbitrators’ duties include:
- determining the size of any awards;
- giving each party a chance to put their case forward;
- allowing each party the chance to respond to the case of their opponent;
- adopting procedures that avoid delay and expense as far as possible.
Arbitrators decide whether employers’ actions are fair or not based on a common sense judgement of fairness and good conduct.
Mediation is similar to arbitration, but unlike in arbitrations, awards are not made in mediation. Instead mediators will make recommendations to the parties and take a more active part in the proceedings, helping participants to find solutions. Whether the parties decide to take on the suggestions of a mediator is up to them.
A mediator’s role is to guide the other parties through the process, identify the issues at stake and come up with ideas that might improve the situation. How the process unfolds is down to the mediator, but they will usually:
- start by speaking to the parties involved separately to establish what is wrong;
- help the parties to think about what they want;
- encourage each party to see the matter from the other person’s perspective; and then
- make suggestions as to how the situation can be improved.
During this stage, none of the information given to the mediator will be passed to the other party, thus allowing them both to speak openly.
Eventually the mediator will bring both parties together so they can say exactly how they feel without being interrupted. The mediator will ask questions and encourage both parties to come up with realistic solutions to their problems. If at the end of mediation no formal agreement has been made, the parties can ask the mediator to issue formal recommendations.