Will the abolition of Employment Tribunal fees result in ‘old’ 2013-2017 cases being permitted in Tribunal?

Employment Tribunal fees are illegal. This was declared on 26th July 2017 by the Supreme Court in R (on the application of Unison) v Lord Chancellor. Put simply, from that day onwards, Employment Tribunals completely scrapped both issue fees (the fee for submitting a claim form to Tribunal) and the hearing fee (the fee incurred 3 weeks before a final hearing date) due to their illegality.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not that simple. This is because tribunal fees were ruled to be ‘unlawful’. This means that all previously obtained Tribunal fees from the introduction of the fees in 2013 onwards were illegally obtained and must be paid back. Now, whilst that sounds simple, in reality, it’s far from it.

Why? Well, to start with, employees bringing group actions through one main claimant paid a combined fee. So, how do you handle returning a split fee to each applicant (particularly in situations where some settled and others continued to final hearing)? Also, many COT3 (ACAS brokered) agreements (the legal document by which parties agree to settle claims) provided for employers to repay the equivalent of the employee’s tribunal fees to the employee on top of their separate settlement amounts; do those employers now have the right to claim that portion back from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) upon simply producing the relevant paperwork?

The only comment from HMCTS so far is that a system for reimbursing fees will be announced soon, hopefully by September. Until that date, there is uncertainty as to what will happen.

The biggest question, however, is what happens to the claims of employees who would have brought a claim but who were put off by the tribunal fees. It is undeniable that thousands of employees acted in this way – in this case the statistics don’t lie, namely that there was an appropriate 70% drop in Tribunal claims following the introducton of tribunal fees.

Usually, employees have a three month time limit in which to contact ACAS and then, allowing for time spent during ACAS Early Conciliation, issue a claim to Tribunal. However, many solicitors believe that the ‘unlawfulness’ of the Tribunal fees opens the door to former prospective claimants to bring post-2013 claims. Is this true?
The honest answer is ‘nobody really knows’ and, eventually, this question will be decided by tribunal judges.
One of the reasons this question hasn’t been effectively answered yet is partly due to the President of the Employment Tribunals issuing a universal stay on all claims linked to the ‘unlawful’ Tribunal fees judgment. This has, so far, prevented claims to tribunals asking this question.

However, one case, that of Dhami v Tesco Stores Ltd, slipped through the net. It did so because the case also included confusion over the effective date of termination by Tesco (which took it outside the stay imposed by the President of the Employment Tribunals).

In the Dhami case, the Claimant brought claims for disability and age discrimination against Tesco. However, her case was previously thrown out for non-payment of Tribunal fees due to her application for a fee remission being rejected. In the recent hearing, the Tribunal allowed her application for an extension of time in which to bring her case. Put simply, the Tribunal agreed that it was “just and equitable” (the legal test for extensions of time in employment tribunals) to do so in light of her case having been rejected due to unlawfully applied fees.

What are the likely implications of Brexit on UK Employment Law/HR practices?

Employers may not be aware that much of the current legislation in place to protect employee rights actually derives from the European Union – for example, working time regulations, rights of the employees on a business transfer (TUPE) and family leave rights to name but a few. Indeed some Politicians for the ‘Leave Campaign’ will no doubt have argued that such laws were inhibitive to British businesses and produced too many rules and regulations having a negative effect on both time and profits.

What is likely to happen?

In reality it is doubtful that the UK Government would look to repeal any employment law which implements minimum EU requirements, the reason being that many of these laws simply complement existing UK law (equal pay rights for example). In addition, much of our existing employment law simply reflects good/acceptable practice in business (or indeed life generally!) such as the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, age, disability etc. Furthermore some UK Laws actually go above and beyond the minimum requirements of EU legislation – in respect of holidays for example, the EU Working Time Directive 2003/88/EC only requires EU Member States to provide for a minimum of 20 days’ annual leave for employees, whilst the UK statutory minimum leave entitlement is actually 28 days inclusive of normal bank and public holidays.

As a final point it is worth noting that despite a (potential) Brexit, the UK will still need to maintain strong trading relations with Europe. If the UK is a member of the EEA (European Economic Area) it would be required to remain subject to many aspects of EU employment law.

In light of the above, whilst in my view the majority of employment law legislation will not be repealed or significantly changed, the UK Government may look to alter some employment law that UK businesses have struggled with. The following are areas that may be most susceptible to change:

right to legal representation at a disciplinary hearing

Since September 2000 the basic rule has been that a worker (as defined) has the right to be accompanied by a fellow worker or trade union representative at an employer’s internal disciplinary or grievance hearing.  The companion does not have the right to answer questions on behalf of the worker but does have the right  to put the worker’s case, to sum up that case and to respond on the worker’s behalf to any views expressed at the hearing.