Last updated:2023-09-18
Justice Committee report slams fee hikes
Ministers have been urged to look again at the fees for employment tribunals (ETs) in a report by the House of Commons Justice Committee (Courts and tribunals fees: second report of session 2016–17, HC 167), which was published in June. Fees for ETs were introduced in July 2013 and have led to an almost 70 per cent drop in the number of cases being brought to the tribunals by employees. Charges of up to £1,200 are now levied on applicants whereas previously none were made. The policy was initiated by the former justice secretary, Chris Grayling, as part of his plans to make the courts self-financing.
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While the government has defended the fees to the committee (chaired by Conservative MP Robert Neill, pictured), the report states that the evidence shows the introduction of ‘tribunal fees has had a significant adverse impact on access to justice for meritorious claims’ (page 27 para 69), and that the charges need to be ‘substantially reduced’ (page 30 para 79) if access to justice in employment cases is going to be restored for the public. In the conclusions and recommendations, the report reiterates (page 37 para 3): ‘Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving cost-recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter objective must prevail.’
Michael Reed, principal legal officer (employment) at the Free Representation Unit and co-author (with Naomi Cunningham) of Employment Tribunal Claims: tactics and precedents (4th edn, LAG, 2013), welcomed the report but observed: ‘It only confirms what we already knew: the introduction of substantial fees to bring an employment tribunal claim has been a disaster for access to justice.’ The government is currently carrying out its own investigation into the impact of the fees. Reed hopes this will be ‘honest enough to reach the same obvious conclusion’ and be ‘followed by urgent action to address the situation’. The Justice Committee report recommends that the government should not go ahead with its plans to increase fees in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber prior to publishing its report on the impact of ET fees.
In its evidence to the committee, the Discrimination Law Association argued that the introduction of the fees had fallen disproportionately on groups protected by equality legislation. A survey jointly commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that 11 per cent of mothers suffered a detriment in the workplace, while Maternity Action said the fees had led to a 40 per cent drop in pregnancy-related cases (page 28 para 71). Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, told the committee that the costs associated with having a baby were not taken into account in applying the means test for remission of fees in ET cases.
The committee was also critical of the recent increase in court fees for bringing a divorce petition. It implied the Ministry of Justice is profiting from the fees, as the amount HM Courts and Tribunals Service collects in fees is twice what it costs to run the service. The report describes the recent increase in divorce petition fees from £410 to £550 as ‘unjustified’, with the committee arguing: ‘It cannot be right that a person bringing a divorce petition, in most cases a woman, is subject to what has been characterised in evidence to us as effectively a divorce tax’ (page 33 para 89). It calls for the £140 increase in the fee to be rescinded.
Recommendations by the Law Society for the government to regularly review the provisions of the fee remission schemes for the courts and tribunals, as well as to consider simplifying them, were adopted by the committee in its report. The committee also found that the remission thresholds for ET claims were too low for both income and capital and recommended that they be doubled.