What today's introduction of Employment Tribunal Fees really means

As of this morning, Employment Tribunals - set up to provide a proper, impartial forum for the resolution of disputes between employees and employers - are no longer free to access.

The Government's legal aid cuts may have attracted their fair share of criticism, but another reform with potentially huge implications for access to justice quietly kicks in today.

As of this morning, Employment Tribunals - set up to provide a proper, impartial forum for the resolution of disputes between employees and employers - are no longer free to access. If you're unfairly sacked, discriminated against or don't receive wages owed from now on, you'll need to pay an upfront cost or bite your lip.

The Ministry of Justice claims that the £84m (or £74m, depending on which particular Government document you happen to be looking at) cost of running the Employment Tribunals Service is too high. They say it's unfair for taxpayers to foot the bill for workers who choose to "escalate workplace disputes to a tribunal" and argue that "drawn out disputes" can "emotionally damage workers and financially damage businesses".

What this translates to is a fees system compelling claimants (almost always employees or ex-employees) to pay £160 just to begin the process of challenging employers over relatively simple matters like non-payment of wages or statutory redundancy pay.

Should they then want to take the case to a full hearing, they'll need a further £230. If that seems onerous, spare a thought for those challenging unfair dismissal, sexual or racial discrimination in the workplace, or sackings arising from whistle-blowing, who will now have to cough up £250 upfront, with a further £950 due for a day at tribunal.

There's no guarantee either that a claimant will get their fees back, even if they win their case. While the new rules allow tribunals to impose a costs order against a losing party, this is entirely at a judge's discretion, so even if an employee proves that they were, for example, the victim of sexual harassment at work, a good chunk of their compensation awarded could well be swallowed up by fees.

Although the Government's own impact assesment freely concedes that it "cannot rule out... fees may have the effect of deterring some claimants from bringing a claim", it insists that the policy is not designed to reduce claims, only to transfer some of the cost from taxpayers. Responding to criticism that fees might put poor people off seeking redress, the MoJ points to the Civil Fee Remission scheme, whereby low-earners and those in receipt of state benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance can obtain a full or partial waiver of fees for tribunal proceedings.

Yet the MoJ is already planning major reforms to Civil Fee Remission and, while it has yet to respond to the four-week consultation it issued in the spring, proposals already floated include a tougher means test, a reduction in the number of benefits accepted as proof of entitlement to fee remission in line with the Universal Credit reforms and a 66 per cent reduction in the time limit for retrospective remission claims, from six to two months.

While it won't be clear for some months what the what the final reformed remissions system will look like, someone who qualifies for free access to an Employment Tribunal today might not necessarily make the grade come the autumn.

It's easy to raise the spectre of feckless employees cashing in on an overly-generous system. Indeed, the controversial Beecroft report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and its rabidly "socialist"  Secretary of State Vince Cable, warned of sacked workers with "time on their hands", who view a free employment tribunal "as a no cost option".

Beecroft's report didn't trouble itself with figures - he famously put the cost of red tape to business at a distinctly unscientific "Who knows?" - but here are a few to consider. Since hitting a peak of 236,100 in the wake of financial crash - when presumably there was a sudden spike in chancers with "time on their hands" - the number of claims accepted for consideration by employment tribunals has fallen by a fifth.

Only eight per cent of unfair dismissal claims are successful at hearing, while there was a whopping, er, zero per cent success rate for equal pay claims in 2011-12. Nobody wants British companies to be bogged down with unnecessary costs at a time of economic stagnation, but if this is a system stacked against employers, it's doing a pretty good job of pretending otherwise.

Even the Federation of Small Business, which backs the principle of claimants bearing some of the cost for employment claims, has said it believes that the fee levels introduced today may be too high, while prominent employment lawyers argue that the reforms could actually lead to more litigation because of disputes over fee payment deadlines. 

Meanwhile, the Institute of Employment Rights think tank warns that, when combined with other changes like the legal aid reforms, the doubling of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal to two years, the halving of consultation periods for collective redundancies, fees will add to a climate "in which it is extremely difficult for workers to receive compensation and support if they are treated unfairly by their employer." If you're lucky enough to be in work at the moment, that should worry you.

Judges make their way to the Palace of Westminster. Photo: Getty
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change