Accessing justice for London’s workers: the human story
Louise Heath
Description: Trust for London
For many of London’s workers, including those in precarious and low-paid employment, and those who are pregnant or have migrant status, there are numerous barriers to accessing justice and enforcing their employment rights. They can’t afford lawyers, there is a limited supply of free initial legal advice and even more limited assistance in relation to ongoing casework. If they do start proceedings in an employment tribunal, the hearing may not take place until well into the next year.
Members of the Employment Legal Advice Network (ELAN) will be all too familiar with these barriers. Tackling these issues can only succeed if there is also a far deeper understanding of the more personal challenges that are involved in enforcing rights and of the human stories behind the problems, some of which ELAN members have shared with me.
Lance Baynham, discrimination caseworker at South West London Law Centres, explains that many clients who access his service have mental health difficulties. One client experienced an act of discrimination at work and was in shock at first. They started to struggle with the impact and went off sick for six months. They tried to return to work but couldn’t do so because of the impact on their well-being, so they resigned and claimed constructive dismissal. Lance is supportive of these clients; it takes strength to seek help when they do not feel well. They then face the news that, because they have delayed enforcing their rights due to their mental health issues, the tribunal will need to be persuaded to extend the time limits before their claims can be heard. This news can weigh heavily on a client.
Lance points out the implications of these time limits. In such cases, his experience is that clients are in a weaker position in settlement discussions as there is no certainty of their claim being heard. Tribunal delays cause further uncertainty and often aggravate clients’ mental health difficulties.
Lora Tabakova from the Work Rights Centre agrees and is witness to the barriers created by the mental health problems with which many of her clients suffer, particularly those who are unwilling to recognise them. In some cultures, she says, they ‘simply do not acknowledge mental health as a thing. It remains a taboo to admit to experiencing mental health challenges.’ Other clients have undiagnosed disabilities but no access to healthcare. They might be unable to register with a doctor – some don’t have a permanent address, others don’t speak English and find it too challenging to navigate the registration process without a translator. Without a diagnosis, they are vulnerable to employment abuses and lack the agency to do much about them.
Lora describes other challenges for clients who don’t speak English or for whom it is a second language. They don’t understand legal terms such as unfair dismissal or even the word ‘tribunal’ as tribunals don’t exist in other jurisdictions. They don’t know what HM Courts & Tribunals Service does, or the Health and Safety Executive, Acas or the Ministry of Justice. Worse, many don’t even know they exist. The Work Rights Centre spends a lot of time breaking down the process of the tribunal and setting out what to expect. For many of its clients, the barriers are even more profound as they are illiterate in their own language and every communication must be verbal to be effective. Lora and other ELAN members tell me of the clients they see who have no digital skills and no idea of how to navigate a laptop or PC.
Lora also explains one of the hidden challenges to accessing justice – the ‘unregulated street accountants’ as she calls them. She sees many clients from the construction industry who respond to social media adverts offering help with unpaid wages, for example. They pay a fee but then receive incorrect advice or are told to start proceedings in the wrong forum. The ‘adviser’ disappears with the client’s money and sometimes also with the paperwork needed to pursue the claim. We must do more collectively to highlight this sort of malpractice, which also occurs with online employment rights advisers. At their most vulnerable moment, workers are trusting their limited savings to someone who promises to help. All hope must feel lost when they learn that this trust is misplaced.
To find out more about these challenges and others, the Greater London Authority (GLA) is commissioning research into the barriers that prevent Londoners from enforcing their employment rights at work. The research is being commissioned by the GLA’s Communities and Social Policy Unit, as part of its ongoing work around supporting Londoners on low incomes to access their rights and entitlements to prevent financial hardship. The research is expected towards the end of March, and ELAN members, in particular, hope that it will shape policy and a new strategy to combat these problems without delay.

About the author(s)

Description: Victoria Speed - author
Victoria Speed is Director of Network at the Employment Legal Advice Network.