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27 July 2017

Unison’s employment tribunal fees victory will go down in history – here’s why

It’s the most significant judicial intervention in the history of British employment and constitutional law.

By Dave Prentis

The right to pursue justice through the courts is one of our country’s most long-standing and treasured principles. To challenge injustice at work and seek legal recourse is something that most of us will thankfully never have to do. But it is something which none of us should ever take for granted.
 
Yet in 2013, the then-Coalition government launched a direct attack on that centuries-old principle. Instead, ministers argued that those seeking justice for wrongdoing at work must pay as much as £1,200 to take their cases.
 
Justice that comes at a cost is all too often justice denied. Cases involving sex discrimination and unfair dismissal were not brought because of the high fees involved. 

People don’t choose to go to tribunals, they go because they have to. And those who need access to justice most – low-paid workers, the majority of them women – were the most likely to be have been kept out of the courts by high costs involved.
 
Rights at work still existed on paper, of course, but rights only mean something when they can be exercised effectively, without the restrictions imposed by excessive fees. 
 
That’s why Wednesday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling is so important. Not just for the 1.3m public sector employees who belong to Unison, but for all employees and workers, everywhere. 
 
It’s the most significant judicial intervention in the history of British employment and constitutional law, because it overturns legislation explicitly designed to deny working people their rights. The Supreme Court ruled that fees should be affordable for all.
 
The judgement is also a reminder of the importance of unions in fighting for all of our rights. This was a long, difficult and expensive legal case. It’s taken almost four years to get here. 
 
Only a union dedicated to reversing a huge injustice would have been able to take on a challenge of this magnitude.
 
In taking on this case, Unison was not simply pursuing a legal case but also a moral one – that everyone deserves the right to have their case heard, and that there should never be a barrier to justice based on ability or willingness to pay arbitrary fees.
  
Of course, as well as being a time of celebration, this week is also a time for reflection.
 
We will never know just how many people were stopped from taking legal cases as a result of employment tribunal fees. We will never know how many people have been denied access to justice and to legal recourse. Too many people whose stories went untold and whose rights went unprotected, thanks to the callous decisions of politicians.
 
This result brings to an end the cruel employment tribunal fees regime, and ensures that no-one else is ever forced to pay crippling fees just to access basic justice. 
 
It should enshrine once and for all that vital principle, that justice does not belong to the rich and the powerful, it belongs to all of us. 
 
And it should show this government, as ministers continue Brexit negotiations that threaten our rights at work and at home, that we will stand and fight to defend vital and hard won protections.

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