Tribunals traditionally have enforced time limits in relation to the lodging of claims very strictly.
The majority of claims to an employment, including unfair dismissal and HR must be lodged within 3 months of the date of dismissal (or in a HR complaint within three months of the act or final act in a series taking place).
There is a mechanism in place for allowing claims to be lodged out of time provided that the Claimant can show that it was not reasonably practicable to lodge the claim in time in the case of unfair dismissal or else that it is just and equitable to allow the claim to be received late in the case of HR complaints. It is normally easier to argue the 'just and equitable' exemption than the 'not reasonably practicable' one.
As a general rule, the mere ignorance of time limits has not been viewed as a sufficient excuse making it not reasonably practicable to lodge a claim in time. However, as the case of John Lewis Partnership v Charman shows much will depend on the circumstances of each case. In this case, the employee was summarily dismissed. He lodged an appeal against that dismissal. The outcome of the appeal was not sent to him until more than 3 months after the dismissal by which point the time limit of raising a tribunal action had elapsed. The letter arrived during a period of annual leave and it took a further number of weeks for the employee to open the letter. Only after opening the letter, and some 6 weeks out of time, did the Claimant lodge a tribunal application.
Perhaps surprisingly, the EAT upheld the tribunal's decision that it was not reasonably practicable for the Claimant to have lodged a tribunal action in time. There seem to have been a number of factors at play in the tribunal reaching this decision. In the first place, there is the fact that the Claimant had sought to do the right thing by seeking to have the case resolved internally at first instance. The Claimant himself was young and inexperienced and knew nothing of his rights to claim unfair dismissal until after the appeal had been dealt with. Taking all these matters together, it was not reasonably practicable to lodge the claim in time.
This case does to a certain extent turn on its facts, and the position may well have been different had the Claimant been aware of the time limits but chosen to ignore them, or alternatively had sought legal or other advice. However, it is a reminder to employers and practitioners alike not to be too quick to dismiss an employee's chances of getting claims accepted out of time.