supreme court Middlesex Guildhall, where the Supreme Court is located. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The win for Unison is something to celebrate, but we should avoid complacency

In a stunning move, the Supreme Court has overturned previous rulings by the High Court and Court of Appeal in support of the government’s introduction of employment tribunal fees, concluding the fees were ‘unconstitutional’ and blocked low wage workers from seeking redress against unscrupulous employers.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the move signals “a massive win” for workers in the UK which marks another humiliating defeat for the Government who will now be forced to repay up to £32 million.

The Supreme Court sitting of seven judges headed by Lord Neuberger ruled unanimously in favour of trade union Unison who brought an action against the former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Liz Truss arguing the fees blocked ‘access to justice.’

The ruling concluded that the fees, ranging from £390 up to £1,200 to submit a claim for discrimination cases, were ‘unlawful’ and indirectly discriminated against female workers as they were most likely to bring discrimination cases against their employers.

Introduced in 2013 under the former Tory coalition government, the unfair fees formed part of a wider calculated assault on workers’ rights, from undermining workers’ ability to claim unfair dismissal to restricting the right to strike.

Under the guise of reducing the number of weak cases and freeing up the justice system by encouraging settlements out of court, the government’s ruthless restrictions on the ability of low wage workers to take on their employers speaks louder than their ‘working people’ rhetoric and epitomizes their sheer contempt for the working class.

Since the introduction of employment tribunal fees 79% fewer cases have been brought against employers in the last three years illustrating the sheer incompetence of the Conservative government to formulate effective policy.

Unison argued that contrary to freeing up the justice system, tribunal fees actively encouraged employers to stall legal proceedings rather than settle out of court to see whether employees would be able to afford to pay, effectively putting justice out of the reach of thousands of low-wage workers.

Most employment tribunal cases centre around breaches of existing legislation. What is required is greater access to justice for low-wage workers and a simple matter of enforcement, without which employment rights conferred by legislation are about as much use as an umbrella in the desert.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis welcomed the verdict and said the controversial fees had let law-breaking bosses off the hook and left badly treated staff with no other option but to “put up or shut up.” He added, “We’ll never know how many people missed out because they couldn’t afford the expense.”

Justice minister Dominic Raab said that the government would respect the Supreme Court’s judgement and cease taking fees “immediately” and begin the process of reimbursing claimants dating back to 2013.

Whilst we have every reason to celebrate this ‘massive win’ we should avoid complacency and endeavour to keep up the pressure on this callous and despicable government.

In spite of the rhetoric, the Tories will no doubt attempt to re-brand employment tribunal fees in a way that won’t fall foul of the law and continue their slash and burn offensive against workers’ rights which, if unchallenged, will permanently price low-wage workers out of the justice system and allow fat cat employers a free reign of abuse.

Kara Bryan

Kara Bryan is a writer and activist and regular contributor to the Counterfire website. She is a member of Counterfire and Stop the War

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