A straight-talking UN committee has taken the government to task on access to justice
On 15 and 16 June 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – the treaty body charged with assessing compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – met in Geneva to consider the UK’s sixth periodic report.
The ICESCR sets out a detailed list of economic, social and cultural rights that all states parties are obliged to realise for the benefit of their residents to the maximum of their available resources and without discrimination of any kind. States parties are obliged to present periodic reports to the committee every five years, setting out measures they have adopted and progress made in achieving the observance of the rights recognised in the ICESCR. Once the committee has examined a report, it issues its ‘concluding observations’, which the state party is expected to put into practice. The UK’s previous periodic report was considered by the committee in 2009.
‘Reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice.’
Having attended, I drew the committee’s attention to the enormous impact on the enjoyment of economic and social rights posed by the introduction of employment tribunal fees in July 2013, which has led to a dramatic reduction in claims being brought. Fees of £1,200 for unfair dismissal, equal pay and discrimination claims (a claim fee of £250 and a hearing fee of £950) resulted in an initial drastic drop in claims (in October to December 2013 there were 79 per cent fewer claims than in the same quarter the previous year). As of September 2015, estimates suggest the number of claims has fallen between 65 and 75 per cent since the introduction of the fees.
The Dutch member of the committee and chair of public international law at Leiden University, Professor Nicolaas Jan Schrijver, stressed his concern about the deterrent effect of the fees, stating that ‘access to justice is not so easy for workers who don’t have the resources to initiate legal proceedings’. Sergei Martynov, the Belarusian member of the committee and former minister of foreign affairs, voiced his concern that ‘a person seeking justice has to pay for it to get access to the tribunal’ and asked how the government considered this compatible with its obligation to provide remedies. The UK delegation merely replied that it was undertaking a review, including an assessment of the impact of fees on those with protected characteristics, and hoped to announce the results of this review very shortly.
In its Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (E/C.12/GBR/CO/6, 14 July 2016), the committee confirmed its concern ‘that the reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits (art 2)’ and called on the UK government to abolish employment tribunal fees and to ‘review the impact of the reforms to the legal aid system with a view to ensuring access to justice and the provision of free legal aid services, in particular for disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups’ (page 4, paras 20–21).
Considering the recently announced introduction of a 500 per cent increase in immigration tribunal fees (in defiance of a consultation overwhelmingly opposing this, with 142 (out of 147) responses against the increase), the UK government has decided to give not only democracy short shrift, but also its international obligations (see also page 4). ■