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Fears that tribunal fees are restricting access to justice

UNISON says workers are being priced out of a fair hearing

23 June 2014

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The number of claims brought before the Employment Tribunal has plunged for the second consecutive quarter following the introduction of fees, new figures from the Ministry of Justice reveal.

Between January and March 2014 employment claims dropped to 6,019, an 81 per cent drop compared with the same quarter in 2012/13. In the last quarter of 2013 claims fell by 79 per cent, compared with the last quarter of 2012.

The government is keeping the issue of employment tribunal fees under review and, just last month, revealed that only 5 per cent of claimants were having their fees waived which is far below the government's original estimate of 31 per cent.

Commenting on the figures, Richard Fox, head of employment law at Kingsley Napley, said that the statistics were important: "Although they show a reduced fall in single claims than in the previous quarter, the reduction is still drastic. Between January and March 2013, 13,739 single claims were lodged, compared to 5,619 in a similar period during 2014. A 59 per cent reduction. That is way outside government expectations when the fees regime was first introduced last July.

"It is not just employees who have expressed grave dissatisfaction, but many employers, who recognised the threat to 'access to justice'. There is no easy fix. However, there are two possible developments. The first is that the government conducts the 'review they have been hinting at and it results in a downward revision of the level of tribunal fees, to something more appropriate and proportionate. The second is that UNISON is able to use these statistics in their upcoming judicial review challenge."

The trade union, UNISON, has been granted permission to appeal the High Court's rejection of its judicial review which challenged the introduction of tribunal fees. Judicial Review was dismissed in February after a finding that there was no quantifiable evidence to assess the impact of the fees.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, said the figures made for 'shocking reading': "This downward spiral in the number of employment tribunal cases shows only too clearly that workers are being priced out of a fair hearing."

The introduction of the "early conciliation" process via the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) may have had an impact on the above figures. This new scheme may be leading to more employers and employees willing to settle their disputes through negotiation and dialogue, rather than through the tribunal system.


Heeding the warning

Kevin Poulter is editor at large of Solicitors Journal and an employment solicitor at Bircham Dyson Bell

"It will come as little surprise to employment practitioners that there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of employment tribunal claims presented over the past six months. It seems that all of a sudden, the world has conspired to pull the rug from under us. Well, maybe not the rug, but a carpet tile, perhaps. This might be the result of a 'perfect storm', the effect of extending the unfair dismissal qualifying period from 12 to 24 months in April 2012, the introduction of tribunal fees in July last year and a slow to change economy. Add in to the mix the 12 month cap on normal unfair dismissal claims, compulsory early conciliation processes and last month's reports that only a quarter of fee remission applications are successful, and it soon becomes more clear why claimants are reluctant to pursue claims.

"Access to justice is something we should be striving for, not only in criminal and family cases, such as those most recently under threat from cuts to the legal aid budget, but also in the employment field. Unfair labour practices often affect those who can least afford to complain, not only financially, but also to protect the income they do have. Unreasonable and disproportionate fees will not encourage them to complain, even when they have a valid complaint.

"How UNISON can now use these most recent and shocking figures to support its appeal for judicial review or whether it will simply be dismissed is yet to be seen. What is certain is that employment lawyers should heed the warning and look to how they can support their private individual, commercial and charity clients in making their cases, in or out of the tribunal, and defending the routes to justice that do still exist."

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Tribunals & Courts