The Supreme Court, in a breakthrough for the labour movement, ruled that fees for those bringing employment tribunal claims are unlawful, and that the government must repay up to £32m to claimants.
The Tory-led coalition government introduced fees of up to £1,200 in 2013, and 79% fewer cases were brought over the subsequent three years.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “The government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.”
He added: “These unfair fees have let law-breaking bosses off the hook these past four years, and left badly treated staff with no choice but to put up or shut up. We’ll never know how many people missed out because they couldn’t afford the expense of fees.”
The Supreme Court the government was acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it introduced the fees.
Justice minister Dominic Raab said the government would cease taking fees for employment tribunals “immediately” and begin the process of reimbursing claimants, dating back to 2013. He said: “We respect the judgement and we are going to take it fully on board and we are going to comply with it.”
Fees ranged between £390 and £1,200. Discrimination cases cost more for claimants because of the complexity and time hearings took. The Supreme Court found this was indirectly discriminatory because a higher proportion of women would bring discrimination cases.
It also said that some people would not bring cases to employment tribunals because paying the fees would render any financial reward pointless. The court’s summary added claimants in low or middle income household could not afford the fees “without sacrificing ordinary and reasonable expenditure for substantial periods of time”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said it was a “massive win” for workers. “Too many low-paid workers couldn’t afford to uphold their rights at work, even when they’ve faced harassment or have been sacked unfairly,” she said.
The decision was welcomed by employment lawyer Karen Jackson, who said: “I don’t know an employment lawyer who didn’t think it was wrong to have fees. We all felt that morally it was the wrong thing to do as a barrier to justice.”
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon said: “We welcome the Supreme Court’s judgement which finds tribunal fees unlawful. The Conservative Government should do the right thing, accept the ruling and consign their immoral Employment Tribunal Fees to the dustbin of history, rather than spending more taxpayers’ money trying to defend the indefensible.
“It’s an important day for access to justice for ordinary working people everywhere. The Conservative Government – which in coalition with the Lib Dems brought in this immoral restricted access to justice – must now pay a £32 million price for attacking workers
“Labour’s manifesto pledged to abolish Employment Tribunal Fees. Labour’s position has been vindicated by the highest court of the land and Unison should be congratulated on winning a victory for working people everywhere.”