Speaking at the TUC Congress on 8 September 2014, Chuka Umunna, the Labour Party’s Shadow Business Secretary, announced that, if elected, the Labour Party would undertake major reforms of the current Employment Tribunal system in a bid to streamline the bureaucratic process. However, talk of “abolishing the current system” has resulted in confusion. Far from abolishing the Employment Tribunal system entirely, the proposed reforms appear to focus solely on the issue of Employment Tribunal fees.
Introduced by the coalition in July 2013, Employment Tribunal fees range from £160 to £250 to issue a claim and a further £230 to £950 for a final hearing. In defence of the implementation of fees, Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said: “It is not fair for the taxpayer to foot the £74m bill for people to escalate workplace disputes to a tribunal”. Indeed, the introduction of fees was well received by many employers who felt that they would offer some protection from frivolous and unmeritorious claims. The Institute of Directors stated that, before fees were introduced, claims wasted a large amount of money and management time for businesses with less than 10% of cases against its members proving successful. However, there have been widespread complaints about the fees. Although there are exemptions available for those who are unable to afford the fees, the deterring procedure is so opaque and unwieldy that individuals are reluctant to rely on it. Therefore, there is concern that the fees have created a barrier that prevents low-income earners from bringing legitimate claims against their employers.
Opponents to the fees cite the recent decline in the number of Employment Tribunal claims as evidence that the most vulnerable employees are being priced out of access to justice. Some accounts put the drop in the number of claims at around 45% while others put this as high as 80%. It remains unclear whether this is the result of the fees acting as a deterrent to vexatious claims, a catalyst for early conciliation or a prohibitive “justice tax” on aggrieved low-income employees.
The introduction of fees has certainly caused controversy, and this may be what Chuka Umunna meant when he declared his party’s intention to “abolish” Employment Tribunals. What he went on to say was that the Labour Party intends to “put in place a new system which ensures all workers have proper access to justice”. While he has pledged to reform the current system, he has not committed to revoking fees altogether and was unable to elaborate on how the reforms would work in practice. However, the consensus seems to be that the reforms would involve abolishing the current system and replacing this with a new regime of improved means testing so that those claimants able to pay higher tribunal fees would effectively subsidise those on the lowest incomes. Whatever the outcome of the 2015 General Election, the current debate highlights that there will no doubt be further changes to come.