The process for obtaining state-funded legal help in discrimination cases is too bureaucratic, practitioners have told the Gazette, after MPs demanded urgent action to end a ‘shocking’ increase in workplace pregnancy discrimination.

In a report published this week, the Women and Equalities select committee said pregnant women and mothers were reporting more discrimination and poor treatment at work now than they did a decade ago, yet the number taking enforcement action is low. 

‘The government must take urgent action to remove barriers to justice,’ the committee said, recommending a substantial reduction in the tribunal fee for such cases, and a review of the three-month time limit for bringing a tribunal claim.

While discrimination is one of the few civil law areas to remain within the scope of legal aid, solicitors say it has become difficult for people to seek advice.

Those needing help must go through the government’s civil legal advice mandatory gateway, delivered by the Civil Legal Advice helpline.

The gateway provides specialist legal advice primarily by telephone, online, and by post.

Applicants will initially communicate with operators trained to assess whether the user’s problem is within the scope of legal aid, in one of the areas covered by the advice line, and whether they qualify financially.

However, solicitor Habtom Tesfay, an employment specialist at Islington Law Centre in London, said applicants need legal advice just to make the initial phone call.

He said: ‘If you don’t explain your case properly, you might be told it is not within scope and that there is no legal help for it. What we try to do is effectively give people key words they need to say.’

Audrey Ludwig, director of legal services at Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE), which runs a Tackling Discrimination in the East (TDE) legal service, said she had seen a 55% increase in the number of pregnancy- or maternity-related discrimination cases between 2014-15.

Last month TDE successfully secured £350,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to continue providing free legal advice for another three years. ISCRE estimates that it will be able to help 700 people.

Ludwig said the government’s gateway system was ‘front-loaded with bureaucracy’, noting that most people will initially want face-to-face advice and may have difficulties using a phone system. Nearly half of TDE’s clients have a disability.

Of the 700 people ISCRE predicts it will be able to help, Ludwig estimated that 50 will be pregnancy- or maternity-related discrimination cases.

Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network, said making and evidencing a case was complex.

‘Employment tribunal fees are high, especially when your income has dropped during maternity leave,’ he added. ‘Yet employers increasingly wait until employees pay the tribunal fee before treating their claims seriously and considering settlement.’

The committee has urged the government to monitor access to free, good-quality one-to-one advice on pregnancy and maternity discrimination issues, and assess whether additional resources are required.