In a surprise judgment handed down on 26 July the Supreme Court unanimously decided that charging claimants to bring employment tribunal claims was unlawful and the fees scheme (introduced in 2013) was quashed. The Government promptly acknowledged that it accepted the judgment and wasted no time in confirming that the fees have been scrapped. The Law Society Gazette described the judgment as a humiliation for the Government.
Commentators have described the judgment as being constitutionally significant, since it addresses the question of what is meant by “access to justice”. As such its ramifications could extend well beyond the relatively narrow issue of employment tribunal fees. In his lead judgment (which distinguished legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg described as “terrific”) Lord Reed began by recognising that relationships between employers and employees are “generally characterised by an imbalance of economic power”. He noted that tribunals “are designed to deal with issues which are often of modest financial value, or of no financial value at all, but are nonetheless of social importance”.
In 2011, the Government proposed the introduction of fees on the basis that (1) this would transfer some of the cost of the system from the general taxpayer to its users, (2) it could encourage early settlements and (3) that it would help to weed out weak and vexatious claims.
What happened following their introduction was “a dramatic and persistent fall in the number of claims brought in ETs…of the order of 66-70%”.
Lord Reed first considered whether the fees order was unlawful under English law. At paragraphs 66 to 85 of the judgment, headed “The constitutional right of access to the courts” he sets out a compelling analysis of what is meant by the rule of law and how it is inextricably linked with access to justice. He is concerned that these concepts may have become lost in favour of an ideological view that “…the administration of justice is merely a public service like any other, that courts and tribunals are providers of services to the “users” who appear before them, and that the provision of those services is of value only to the users themselves and to those who are remunerated for their participation in the proceedings”. His response is firm and clear: