Insurance · 7 August 2017

The difference between a court and a tribunal

A sign next to the entrance door to the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh's Old Town.
A central difference between a court and a tribunal is the formality of proceedings

If you’re involved in a dispute, you may need to start legal action to resolve it. However, it’s not always clear how or where to start the claim. To clarify the different procedures, Grid Law founder David Walker outlines the difference between a court and a tribunal.

Rather than our legal system having just one court, we have a very complicated system made up of many different courts and tribunals. This is because it’s been evolving for over 1000 years, rather than being designed from scratch. Therefore, it’s better described as a courts and tribunals system instead of just a “court system.”

If I’m discussing this with a client, this often leads to the questions, “Why do we have so many different courts and tribunals, and what’s the difference between them?”

In every case, the main difference between a court and a tribunal is the types of dispute they resolve and the way they resolve them.

For example, when you threaten to take someone to court, you may start your claim in the County Court for a low value debt recovery claim, the High Court for a complicated breach of contract claim or the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court for a trade mark infringement claim. The courts take a very structured approach and the final outcome is usually an award of money by way of compensation.

If someone says “tribunal”, most people will think of an employment tribunal. However, there are many different disputes that can be resolved through a tribunal process. For example, there is a tax chamber that deals with appeals against decisions made by HMRC.

There is a property chamber that decides, amongst other things whether a rent review is fair, or market rate and there is a general regulatory chamber which deals with all sorts of appeals against decisions made by government regulatory bodies.

There are others too. The outcome of a tribunal hearing may be a previous decision overturned, either with or without compensation being awarded.

In general, tribunals are less formal than the courts and people will often represent themselves without needing a solicitor. The tribunal chairman will usually take more time to explain the procedure and will ask more questions before making a decision.

This doesn’t happen in the courts. Very rarely will a judge intervene. Instead, they will listen to both sides and then make a decision based on the evidence they have heard.

In most situations, you won’t get a choice as to whether you start your claim in the courts or a tribunal. (The most common exception to this is certain types of employment claim). You will have to start your legal action in the most appropriate place according to what the dispute is about, its value and its complexity.

However, you may get a choice if your dispute is suitable for resolution by a form of alternative dispute resolution. You could either start your claim in the appropriate court or you could form your own tribunal and resolve the dispute by arbitration.

Arbitration can have some significant advantages over litigation through the courts, especially for very specialist disputes.

First, it can be extremely flexible. You don’t have to be bound by the very strict court rules. You can agree an approach that is more suited to resolving your dispute and finding a solution that is acceptable both parties.

The courts will usually try to resolve the dispute with an award of money, but with arbitration you can be far more innovative in the terms of settlement.

The rules on evidence can also be far more flexible than the rigid court rules. However, you need to be careful here. Too much flexibility could work against you as it’s still important to have a fair hearing where all of the relevant facts are presented.

One of the main reasons for choosing arbitration over the courts is that you can have a say in who is deciding the outcome of your dispute. In the courts, you don’t get to choose the judge, but in arbitration you can choose the arbitrator who will decide the outcome.

For simple disputes, there may be a single arbitrator and the parties will try to agree who that will be. For higher value disputes, there may be a panel of three arbitrators so each party will choose one each and then the two arbitrators will choose the third who will act as the chairman of the tribunal.

Another significant advantage of arbitration over the courts is that the whole process, and the final decision, can be kept strictly confidential. The courts, on the other hand, are usually open to the public.

Some people opt for arbitration thinking that it will be cheaper than trying to resolve their dispute through the courts. In my experience, this is rarely the case – especially for lower value disputes. Therefore, if you are considering arbitration rather than the courts, make the decision based on the other factors I have explained above, rather than as a cost saving exercise.

If you would like more information about the difference between a court and a tribunal, or if you’re thinking of starting legal action and want to know what your options are, feel free to email me at editors@businessadvice.co.uk and I’ll happily answer your questions for you.

Find out how to settle a dispute before taking the case to court, or how to win a court case without a lawyer.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

David Walker is the founder of Grid Law, a firm which first targeted the motorsport industry – advising on sponsorship deals, new contracts and building of personal brands. He has now expanded his remit to include entrepreneurs, aiding with contract law, dispute resolution and protecting and defending intellectual property rights.

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