UNIONS hailed a “major victory for employees everywhere” yesterday, as the Supreme Court sensationally declared employment tribunal fees illegal.
The court unanimously affirmed that the government had acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it introduced the fees four years ago.
In a final humiliation, Whitehall will have to reimburse a whopping £32 million worth of fees it has collected since 2013.
Public-sector union Unison, which pursued the legal case, said a “tax on justice” had finally been lifted.
“These unfair fees have let law-breaking bosses off the hook these past four years, and left badly treated staff with no choice but to put up or shut up,” the union’s general secretary Dave Prentis said.
“It’s a major victory for employees everywhere.
“Unison took the case on behalf of anyone who’s ever been wronged at work, or who might be in future. Unscrupulous employers no longer have the upper hand.”
In 2013 then justice secretary Chris Grayling introduced fees of up to £1,200 for taking grievances to tribunals.
A review into the effects of the fees earlier this year exposed a massive 70 per cent drop in the number of cases brought to tribunals since they were introduced.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab said the government would “take immediate steps to stop charging fees in employment tribunals and put in place arrangements to refund those who have paid.”
Labour shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon welcomed the decision and said it was right the government was agreeing to confine the policy to the “dustbin of history.”
He added: “Labour’s manifesto pledged to abolish employment tribunal fees.
“Labour’s position has been vindicated by the highest court of the land and Unison should be congratulated on winning a victory for working people everywhere.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson said it was a “landmark victory for workers and for access to justice.”
But Ms Swinson, who served as employment minister in her party’s coalition government with the Conservatives, defended the fees at the time they were introduced.
Speaking in Parliament in 2012, she said Labour amendments to the government’s tribunal reforms would “provide protection” for people pursuing “vexatious and abusive” claims.
Pointing out Ms Swinson’s hypocrisy, Mr Burgon blasted: “People shouldn’t forget the immoral employment tribunal fees were introduced by the Tories and the Lib Dems.
“Just as the Lib Dems opposed the introduction of the national minimum wage, so too they joined in with the Conservatives’ crackdown on workers’ rights.
“People should make no mistake — the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats introduced tribunal fees with the very purpose of blocking access to justice for working people.”
Unison’s legal victory comes after four years of wrangling in the courts. Two applications for judicial review in the High Court were unsuccessful. The union’s case was then turned down by the Court of Appeal.
But in the Supreme Court in March, Unison’s QC Dinah Rose said these courts had applied the “wrong legal test” in adjudicating on whether the fees made it “in practice, impossible” for the poor to seek justice.
Instead, they should have applied a basic proportionality test, she argued.
The court ruled yesterday that the fees, which ranged between £390 and £1,200, could make it futile or irrational for aggrieved workers to bring claims.
The judges said they contravened the EU law guarantee of effective remedy before a tribunal.
And higher fees for discrimination cases put women at a particular disadvantage because they are more likely to bring discrimination claims, the court ruled — contravening the 2010 Equality Act.
TUC leader Frances O’Grady said: “Today’s result shows the value of working people standing together in trade unions.”