Scaling back justice

Jeremy BeechamJeremy Beecham on Coalition plans to introduce fees for Employment Appeals Tribunals

As most people know, we live in a country where failed bankers and departing BBC executives are awarded compensation running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions – often at the taxpayer’s expense. But our country is also soon to be one where employees, often low paid, not only no longer receive legal advice or legal aid to pursue claims arising out of their employment but will have to pay significant sums to have that case dealt with by an Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). 

It costs between £35 and £70 to issue a money claim of up to £1000 in the civil court. But it’s soon going to cost an employee £160 to issue a Type A claim, for example for wage theft, withheld holiday pay or all manner of modest claims coming out an EAT. Then there’s a further £230 for a hearing with higher fees where multiple claimants seek the same remedy. And in more serious Type B cases, such as unfair dismissal, discrimination or equal pay, the fee will rise to £250 to issue and £950 for a hearing – all to try and secure justice.

Ministers are anxious to market our courts to libel tourists, Russian oligarchs and the like. At the same time however, they are loathe to facilitate access to justice to their fellow citizens seeking basic redress in the form of modest payments that frequently amount to a few hundred pounds. Their own impact assessment demonstrates that 22% of EAT claimants are disabled, with 40% of those claiming discrimination in that category. And there are a rising number of claims stemming from pregnancy and maternity issues.

The proposed fees for multiple claims, for example in relation to equal pay, compound the injustice. Seven supermarket workers claiming for an improper shortfall in pay amounting to £313.90 between them would have to pay £320 to issue then another £460 for a hearing. Given the uncertainties, many people will simply give up, not least because the money must be paid up front; and in the absence of legal advice they will not have a ready notion of their prospects of success.

Following a hastily conducted consultation, a fee remission scheme comes into play at the end of July. But the threshold for this is pitched very low, with no fee payable if disposable monthly income (of the applicant and any partner) is £50 or less, and a graduate cap beyond that. Crucially though, there will also be a capital limit of £3000. 

To be fair, there is an issue – usually affecting larger claims, where respondent employers sometimes feel it economic to settle a claim even though it may be without merit. Recent changes in procedure may well mitigate this problem and, in any event, fees for such cases are unlikely to deter those seeking substantial sums. It may however, make it difficult for genuine claimants of moderate means to pursue their moderate claim.

There would be little objection, perhaps, to a modest fee. But the Coalition’s proposals seem to be another in a long series of changes favouring defendants while scaling back further ordinary people's access to justice.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords

Published 8th July 2013

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