Action on tribunal fees is key test of Theresa May’s commitment to workers’ rights
Figures we published today show that with each passing month thousands more workers are being priced out of justice by employment tribunal fees.
In the year before fees were introduced (2012/13) on average 16,000 people a month took a claim against their employer. However, by 2015/16 the average number of people taking claims dropped to 7,000 a month – that’s a drop of 9,000 a month.
There have always been fluctuations in the number of people going to tribunal. When large groups of workers make the same complaint against a single employer there’s a big peak in claims. Even since the introduction of fees, we have seen some months when claims have picked up because of these group actions, often co-ordinated and supported by trade unions. For example, in the last quarter of 2015/16 there was a big rise because of multiple claims for unpaid holiday pay.
But there is no denying the clear and dramatic impact fees have had on access to justice. This is even more clear when we look at the number of cases (which may involve more than one worker) rather than the total number of people putting in a claim. The graph below shows how the number of cases brought by single individuals has plummeted since fees were introduced. They have remained 70% lower.
The number of multiple claim cases (counting each group of workers bringing the same complaint as one case) has also seen a significant and sustained fall. In 2015/16, they were 80% below what they were in 2012/13.
When the government implemented fees in July 2013 it promised to carry out a review of the impact to see whether changes were needed. But it took until June 2015 for them to set this up. And then it only committed to carrying out an internal review – behind closed doors, with no consultation with workers, unions or other stakeholders. The findings were promised by the end of 2015, along with consultation on any recommended changes. It’s now almost a year since that original deadline has passed and still there is nothing from the Ministry of Justice.
In June this year, the Justice Select Committee, published the findings of its inquiry into courts and tribunal fees. It was scathing about the government dragging its feet, noting the “troubling contrast” between the speed with which the Government introduced fees and “its tardiness in completing an assessment of the impact of the most controversial change it has made.” Having heard evidence from a wide range of people including trade unions, advice organisations and the judiciary, the Committee came to the clear conclusion that “the regime of employment tribunal fees has had a significant adverse impact on access to justice for meritorious claims” and “if there were to be a binary choice between income from fees and preservation of access to justice, the latter must prevail as a matter of broader public policy.”
Theresa May has promised that workers’ rights are safe and will even be enhanced under her government. If that is to be the case, then her government must publish the review of fees as a matter of urgency. And this month’s Autumn Statement – the first major announcement of her spending priorities- offers the opportunity to take swift action to remove this barrier to justice for so many. Doing so will be the first test of whether she means to keep her promise.