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Saturday 5th
posted by Morning Star in Features

DAVE PRENTIS hails the tribunal fees ruling as a major victory for the working people of Britain

The right to pursue justice through the courts is one of our country’s most longstanding and treasured principles. To challenge injustice at work and seek legal recourse is something that most of us will thankfully never have to do. But it’s something which none of us should ever take for granted.

In 2013 the then coalition government launched a direct attack on that centuries-old principle. Ministers argued that those seeking justice for wrongdoing at work must pay as much as £1,200 to take their cases, plus a further £1,600 if they wanted to appeal a decision.

Yet justice that comes at a cost is all too often justice denied. Cases involving sex discrimination and unfair dismissal weren’t brought because of the high fees involved. For some complaints there was a reduction in cases of up to 70 per cent.

The government stressed fees were needed to reduce the number of vexatious complaints, yet the proportion of cases lost before and after the introduction of charges stayed the same.

People don’t choose to go to tribunals, they go because they have to. And those who need access to justice most — low-paid workers, the majority of them women — were the most likely to have been kept out of the courts by high costs involved.

Rights at work still existed on paper — but rights only mean something when they can be exercised effectively without the restrictions imposed by excessive fees.

That’s why the unanimous Supreme Court ruling is so important. Not just for the 1.3m public sector employees who belong to Unison, but for all employees and workers, everywhere.

Until the decision was made, these unfair fees were letting law-breaking bosses off the hook, leaving badly treated staff with no choice but to put up or shut up.

The Supreme Court ruled that fees should be affordable for all. It’s the most significant judicial intervention in the history of British employment and constitutional law. And this is because it overturns legislation explicitly designed to deny working people their rights.

It’s also a reminder of the importance of unions in fighting for all of our rights. This was a long, difficult and expensive legal case. It’s taken almost four years to get here.

Unison began the challenge to fees with a judicial review in the High Court in 2013. When this was rejected the union went back to the High Court in 2014, only to be rebuffed for a second time. In 2015 Unison was in the Court of Appeal challenging both High Court decisions, again, unsuccessfully.

Undeterred by these setbacks, the union took its case to the highest court in the land.

Only a union dedicated to reversing a huge injustice would have been able to take on a challenge of this magnitude.

In taking on this case, Unison was not simply pursuing a legal case but also a moral one — that everyone deserves the right to have their case heard, and that there should never be a barrier to justice based on ability or willingness to pay arbitrary fees.

Of course, as well as celebrating this decision, we should take time to reflect on its implications.

We will never know just how many people were stopped from taking legal cases as a result of employment tribunal fees. We will never know how many people have been denied access to justice and to legal recourse.

For many, these fees would have been more than they earned in a month. And the payout — if they won their case — could easily be less than the fee.

For those without the support of a union to cover the fees, justice seemed completely out of reach. And without the means to challenge these employers, the rights of many employees became meaningless.

What we do know is that the government now has to find £27m to pay back the fees collected between July 2013 and the date of the ruling.

This result brings to an end the cruel employment tribunal fees regime and ensures that no-one else is ever forced to pay crippling fees just to access basic justice.

It should enshrine once and for all that vital principle, that justice does not belong to the rich and the powerful, it belongs to all of us. After all, access to the courts has been a cornerstone of the justice system in England since Magna Carta — yet the introduction of tribunal fees threatened to undermine this centuries-old right.

And it should show this government, as ministers continue Brexit negotiations that threaten our rights at work and at home, that we will stand and fight to defend vital and hard-won protections.

  • Dave Prentis is general secretary of Unison.