In July 2013, Employment Tribunal fees of up to £1,200 were introduced by the coalition government as a means of attempting to reduce vexatious or meritless claims from being escalated to Tribunal level and to pass on a part of the costs of the Tribunal to those using it.
The impact of the fees has been dramatic, with the number of claims brought in the Tribunal falling by around 80%. The fees system divided opinion from the outset and has already been the subject of several Judicial Review challenges. The issue features in several parties’ manifestos and looks set to be a potential policy battleground in the upcoming general election.
The Labour party has announced in its “Better Plan for Britain’s Workplaces” that “Labour will abolish the Government’s Employment Tribunal fee system as part of reforms to make sure that workers have proper access to justice, employers get a quicker resolution, and the costs to the taxpayer are controlled.”
According to Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, a Labour government will abolish the Coalition’s Tribunal fees system which many feel has impeded access to justice (although particularly welcomed by small and medium sized businesses) and led to a decrease of 80% of cases in the Tribunal – however, Labour does plan to charge claimants who earn in excess of the “low to middle” level of salary an income-related fee to issue a claim and attend the full merits hearing.
The process of reforming the Employment Tribunal system under Labour is to be led by the CBI and the TUC, which, although they disagree on the overall merits of the system, have both in the past expressed concern about the level of fees that were introduced in 2013.
As the party that introduced Employment Tribunal fees, understandably the Conservative party is not advocating any changes. Their manifesto does not mention fees specifically, but claims that the party has “reduc[ed] the burden of employment law through our successful Tribunal reforms”.
Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, wrote to Chris Grayling, the Conservative Justice Secretary, to express his concern about the lack of review of the fees system and any potential impact on access to justice, stating “The quid pro quo of my party supporting the Conservative proposal to introduce Employment Tribunal fees was that we should conduct a rigorous review within a year of their introduction, to determine whether there had been any unwanted consequences and to ensure no one was deterred from legitimate access to justice. Despite much prompting… 18 months have now passed and nothing has happened.”
The Liberal Democrat manifesto states simply that they will review fees, and does not commit to reducing or abolishing them.
The merits of Employment Tribunal fees have divided opinion since fees were introduced in July 2013 and have been the cause of much fierce debate. What is indisputable, however, is that their introduction has caused a huge decline in cases in the Employment Tribunal and any further alteration to the fees system is likely to impact on the number of cases brought in future. As such, this will certainly be something to keep an eye on following the general election.
For a discussion on other employment law proposals in the parties’ manifestos, click here.