The right to challenge exploitation at work must be a cornerstone of our justice systemby / July 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
Being subject to unfair treatment at work day in, day out, affects your mental and physical health. It leaves workforces demoralised and depleted, with those affected quitting for new jobs where they won’t have to deal with unscrupulous employers any longer.
But exploitation is a depressing reality for thousands of employees in Britain. That’s why access to justice is so important, and why UNISON was determined to stand up to the government to get tribunal fees scrapped. We carried on fighting to protect the rights of staff, despite earlier defeats. This was a long, difficult and expensive legal case and it’s taken almost four years to get here—but it has been worth the wait. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in our favour. Not only will tribunal fees be scrapped—a welcome result in itself—but thousands of people who have paid them over the last four years will receive a refund.
The right to challenge injustice at work and seek legal recourse is something that most of us will thankfully never need to exercise. But none of us should ever take it for granted. Access to the courts has been a cornerstone of the justice system in England since Magna Carta, which states: “We will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.” The introduction of tribunal fees threatened to undermine this.
“Fees were set as high as £1,200—more than a month’s salary for low paid employees”
When tribunal fees were introduced in 2013, they tipped the balance in favour of unscrupulous employers and away from vulnerable workers, leaving badly treated staff with no choice but to put up or shut up. For those without the support of a union to cover the fees, justice seemed completely out of reach. The rights of many employees became in effect meaningless.
People don’t choose to go to tribunals; they go because they have to. Anyone who has been in such a situation knows just how intimidating the process can be, and the fear of being labeled a trouble-maker. Adding in the extra hurdle of fees made the whole process even more challenging for those facing ill-treatment by their bosses.
Fees were set as high as £1,200—more than a month’s salary for low paid employees. The costs were even higher—another £1,600 on top of fees—should a case go to appeal. So it’s not hard to see why working people, especially those on low incomes, were deterred by such expense. That’s why this ruling—perhaps the most significant judicial intervention in the history of British employment and constitutional law—is so important. Not just for the 1.3m public sector employees who belong to UNISON, but for all workers.
The issue is not just a legal one; it is also a moral one. Everyone deserves the right to have their case heard, and there should never be a barrier to justice based on ability or willingness to pay arbitrary fees.
The coalition government—the Liberal Democrats’ role in the fees imposition must not be forgotten—claimed that introducing fees would stop so-called vexatious claims. But as the Supreme Court pointed out, in reality it was genuine cases that were affected—the type of claims employment tribunals were put in place to support.
As well as being a time for celebration, this victory is also a time for reflection. We will never know just how many people were stopped from taking legal cases as a result of employment tribunal fees. We will never know how many people have been denied access to justice and to legal recourse.
This result ensures that no-one else is forced to pay crippling fees just to access basic justice. It should enshrine once and for all that vital principle that justice does not belong to the rich and the powerful, it belongs to all of us. And it should show this government, as ministers continue Brexit negotiations that threaten our rights at work and at home, that we will stand and fight to defend vital protections.