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Fees for those bringing employment tribunal claims have been ruled “illegal” and preventing people access to justice, the Supreme Court has ruled on Wednesday.
Britain’s highest court unanimously ruled that the fees contravene both EU and UK law and are “discriminatory” against women. The Government will have to refund up to £32 million to the thousands of people charged for taking claims to tribunal since July 2013, when fees were introduced by Chris Grayling, the then Lord Chancellor.
Unison, the UK’s largest trade union, won the “landmark” victory after they argued that the fees of up to £1,200 discriminated against workers, to reduce the number of malicious and weak cases, but that led to a 79% reduction over three years.
The decision by a panel of seven justices, headed by the court’s president, Lord Neuberger, came after the union lost in the high court and court of appeal. The action was brought against the then lord chancellor and justice secretary, Liz Truss.
In their ruling, the court said: “A significant number of people have found the fees unaffordable.” The Ministry of Justice said it would take “immediate steps to stop charging fees in employment tribunals and put in place arrangements to refund those who have paid”. It said the fees were also contrary to the Equality Act 2010 as they disproportionately affected women.
General secretary Dave Prentis said: “The Government is not above the law, but when ministers introduced fees they were disregarding laws many centuries old, and showing little concern for employees seeking justice following illegal treatment at work.
“The Government has been acting unlawfully, and has been proved wrong – not just on simple economics, but on constitutional law and basic fairness too.
“It’s a major victory for employees everywhere. Unison took the case on behalf of anyone who’s ever been wronged at work, or who might be in future. Unscrupulous employers no longer have the upper hand.
“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, but at last this tax on justice has been lifted.
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.”
“The tricky, the difficult, the fluid balancing act that we’ve got is we want to make sure there’s proper access to justice, we want to make sure frivolous or spurious claims don’t clog up the tribunal and at the same time we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right way to fund it,” he said.
The decision marks the end of a four-year fight by Unison to overturn the Government’s introduction of fees.