The government has rebuffed calls for a substantial cut in employment tribunal fees, claiming the regime introduced in 2013 is 'working well'.
However, a long-awaited review published this afternoon proposes to raise the threshold for fee remissions for people on low incomes to the level of the government's 'living wage'.
In a written ministerial statement, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald said tribunal fees have been ‘generally successful’ in meeting the scheme's original objectives.
He added: 'This government believes it is important that those who can afford to pay for ETs continue to do so. An extra £9m a year is raised through ET fees. The review concludes that fees have been successful in promoting conciliation as an alternative way to resolve workplace disputes.’
Recourse to employment tribunals has plummeted since the fees were introduced. In November last year, the Trades Union Congress published figures showing that the number of claims brought is down by an average of 9,000 a month.
Last year the Commons justice committee added its voice to calls for a 'substantial' cut in fees.
In an initial submission to the review in late-2015, the Law Society called for an overhaul of the tribunal system which would yield savings enabling fees to be scrapped. Chancery Lane argued that the £1,200 cost for most types of case was close to the monthly average salary, well beyond the reach of many people.
The ministry’s review today however states that 'there is no conclusive evidence that ET fees have prevented people from bringing claims’ and describes the higher numbers turning to ACAS as a ’positive outcome’.
Heald said this shows the current system is 'generally working effectively and is operating lawfully’.
The MoJ will however consult on proposals to extend support to people on low incomes through its ‘Help with Fees’ scheme, about which Heald admitted there is a 'general lack of awareness'.
Under the proposals people over 25 earning up to £1,250 a month (gross) would be exempt from fees, up from £1,085 now. Heald said the new threshold is broadly the equivalent of someone earning the national living wage (40 hours a week at £7.20 an hour). The review also stresses that the threshold increase will also benefit people on low incomes bringing proceedings in the civil and family courts and in the tribunals where the standard Help with Fees scheme applies.
The threshold will not, however, be increased as the government's living wage increases.
There will be additional allowances for people living as couples and those with children.
The ministry will ‘bring forward’ further measures to improve legal support in a green paper by early 2018 and the Prison and Courts bill, which will enable more people to bring cases online, Heald said.
The extended scheme will benefit women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, disabled and younger people, who all feature disproportionately among low income groups, he argued.
Fees will be remitted for certain proceedings related to payments made from the National Insurance Fund.
The proposals will also apply to those bringing proceedings in the civil and family courts, and most other tribunals.
Responding to the review, Law Society president Robert Bourns said: 'The minister asserts there is "no evidence to suggest" the fees are limiting access to justice - but the evidence in his own report suggests that tens of thousands of people are slipping through the cracks.
'The truth is employment tribunal fees have had a chilling effect on the number of people able or willing to bring a case against their employer.
'Particularly affected are claims in areas such as sexual discrimination and equal pay – and the reduction in tribunal cases is not offset by the increase in people using ACAS' early conciliation service. Solicitors working in this area also report that the reduced number of claims has altered the behaviour of employers and we will address this concern in our consultation response.'
Bourns added: 'No matter who you are, everyone in England and Wales must be able to access the justice system. It is a public good which should not be used to generate revenue.
'If these fundamental principles are not followed, we risk squandering years of progress and damaging the reputation of England and Wales as one of the fairest justice systems in the world.'