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The trouble with tribunals - are employment tribunal fees pricing workers out of justice?

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 20 April 2015
  2. Employment
  3. 0 comments
Empty wallet

Employment tribunals have long been the last resort for mistreated workers seeking justice against an errant employer. However, the introduction in 2013 of government fees to the process has led to a huge drop in claims – and, some worry, has placed an insurmountable barrier to justice in the path of wronged employees.

The introduction of tribunal fees

In July 2013, the government brought in fees payable by any worker who wanted to take their employer to an employment tribunal. The cost varies depending on the specifics of the case. The lowest charge comes to £390 after paying both the claim fee and the hearing fee, but common claims such as unfair dismissal or discrimination cost claimants £1,200 to bring before a tribunal.

The fees have been controversial since their introduction, attracting heavy criticism from those who claimed that they would harm access to justice by making it too expensive for those who have been mistreated by their employers to bring a claim to a tribunal.

However, the government claimed that the fees were necessary to encourage people to seek alternative solutions to employment issues, such as mediation, and stated that the taxpayer should not have to cover the cost of tribunal claims where workers could cover the costs themselves. Another stated intention was to reduce the amount of frivolous claims brought before employment tribunals.

The effect on employment claims

Concerns over the effects of the fees seem to have been justified, based on statistics gathered since their introduction. The number of claims plummeted by 79% in the six months following the introduction of the fees, and the period from April to June in 2014 saw 70% fewer claims being brought than during April to June in 2013, before the fees were introduced.

The widespread condemnation of the fees in many ways reflected a concern that people were facing hefty costs at a time when they had been mistreated and may be in a vulnerable financial position. After all, the claims are being made by people who have been mistreated at work and could have even lost their jobs, meaning that they are likely to be in a position where they will struggle to find the cash upfront in order to pay the fees. Bearing this out, a study by Citizens Advice found that almost half of workers who had faced employment issues would have to save for six months to afford the upper level of fees.

In some cases, the amount that an aggrieved employee could be paid if they succeeded in their claim would actually be outweighed by the cost of the fees. Even when this is not the case, much of the time potential claimants do not even know what an employment tribunal might award them, so it’s difficult for them to decide whether or not it would be worthwhile in terms of time, money and risk of failure.

Likewise, it’s hard for the average person to evaluate the likelihood of success when it comes to employment tribunal claims. While the Ministry of Justice has, as previously mentioned, expressed a desire to cut down on the number of frivolous claims, most workers don’t know whether or not their grievance will be upheld by an employment tribunal. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that, despite a fall in the number of cases reaching the tribunal stage, the success rate of claimants has largely remained the same – suggesting that, even if there were a large number of frivolous claims, the fees are discouraging just as many genuine claimants from having their case heard.

The government defends the cost by saying that those looking to bring a claim who do not have much money can apply to have their fees waived, but again, there are concerns that many workers have no idea whether this applies to them, or how exactly to go about doing it.

It seems that in a lot of cases, people are simply electing to give up on seeking a resolution, allowing their employer to get away with possible mistreatment of their workers. Whether or not they missed out on justice is impossible to know, because these cases will never be heard.

If you need contact details for making an employment tribunal claim, take a look at our employment tribunals directory.

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