The challenge to employment tribunal fees brought by UNISON finally hit the buffers when Lord Justice Elias (pictured), delivering the lead judgment in the High Court, rejected the application. There were two grounds for the application. First, it was claimed to be unlawful in not complying with the EU principle of effectiveness because it was either impossible or exceptionally difficult for prospective claimants to bring a claim. Second, it was claimed that fees were indirectly discriminatory in that they placed women, ethnic minorities and the disabled at a substantial disadvantage.
In a controversial judgment Judge Patrick Elias, who has a strong background in employment law, observed that the reduction in the number of claims brought after the introduction of fees was “striking”. Before fees were introduced Employment Tribunals received an average of 48,000 claims per quarter. In the most recent recorded period (July to September 2014) that number had dropped to 13,612. Evidence from the CAB showed that fees made four out of five workers less likely to claim or deterred from claiming at all. Further, over four in ten of those with employment problems had a household income of less than £46 per week after essential bills.
The Government contended that other factors, such as the introduction of ACAS compulsory conciliation, might have contributed to the reduction. Regular readers know my views about the effectiveness of the new ACAS scheme and even the Government’s own figures concerning the operation of the scheme cannot justify any significant impact.
However, the main reason why the application failed was the lack of tangible evidence “that any individual has even asserted that he or she has been unable to bring a claim because of cost”. The most contentious part of the judgment then followed:
- The question many potential claimants have to ask themselves is how to prioritise their spending: what priority should they give to paying the fees in a possible legal claim as against many competing and pressing demands on their finances? And at what point can the court say that there is in substance no choice at all? Although Ms Monaghan would not accept that this is the task facing the court, it seems to me that in essence that is precisely what the court has to do. In that context, as Moses LJ said in the first Unison challenge, it is not enough that the fees place a burden on those with limited means. The question is not whether it is difficult for someone to be able to pay – there must be many claimants in that position – it is whether it is virtually impossible or excessively difficult for them to do so. Moreover, the other factors which I have identified as potentially inhibiting a worker from pursuing a claim may reinforce the conclusion that the risks inherent in litigation are not worth taking. These factors engender a cautious approach to litigation but do not compel the inference that it would be impossible in practice for some of these claimants to litigate.
This part of the judgment has led to considerable debate which centres around the widely held view that judges are out of touch with the real world and do not understand the financial strictures which blight many people, particularly low paid workers. Some have even gone so far as to compare Judge Elias’ salary with many of those contemplating proceedings and questioning whether the judge was able to understand such problems in practical terms.
A particularly strident critic is employment lawyer and blogger Kerry Underwood who took the opportunity to write A Christmas Carol by the High Court in which he takes aim at what he perceives to be the obvious inequities demonstrated by the judgment.
The second limb of the application, based on discrimination, also failed on the basis that the higher fees for such claims could be justified on the basis of the need to allocate greater resources at greater cost. Those who contributed (by paying fees) assisted the running of the employment tribunal system, made the system more efficient and the fees “encouraged settlement”. Of course, it could equally be argued that fees discourage settlement on the basis that employers will take their chances on the basis that claimants cannot afford to proceed.
However, leave to appeal was granted and there is the clear opportunity for a further application, this time with real examples rather than reliance on statistics, which might make it much harder for a court to conclude that the effect of the introduction of fees is “relatively minor”.