The introduction of employment tribunal fees has had a ‘significant adverse impact’ on access to justice for meritorious claims, a group of MPs said today.
In its long-awaited report into the effects of fees on the court and tribunal system, the House of Commons Justice Committee urges the government to ‘substantially reduce’ the overall quantum of fees charged for bringing cases to employment tribunal. The MPs also want an increase in the threshold for fee remission and greater consideration for the position of women alleging discrimination because of maternity or pregnancy.
The cross-party group also concludes that:
- The research basis was insufficient to justify the MoJ’s fee proposals
- Ministers should publish a review of employment tribunal fees immediately
- The MoJ should rescind the increase in the divorce petition fee to £550
- The £10,000 fee cap for money claims should not be changed unless the government has made a full impact review
- Doubling of fees in the immigration and asylum chamber has caused ‘considerable concern and could deny vulnerable people justice’.
The introduction of issue fees and hearing fees for claimants in employment tribunals in July 2013 has led to a drop of almost 70% in the number of cases brought. Comparing the first three months of 2013 – before the fees were introduced – and 2015 shows sex discrimination claims are down 68% and equal pay claims have fallen 58%.
The committee concluded that the introduction of fees set at a level to recover or exceed the full cost of operation of the court requires particular care and strong justification.
Committee Chair Bob Neill MP (pictured) said: ‘Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving full cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter must prevail.’
Neill added that while the MoJ points to changes to employment law and the improving economic system as reasons for the decline in claims, there was ‘no doubt that the clear majority of the decline is attributable to fees’.
The committee report said the raising of divorce fee petitions to £550 was around double the cost to the courts of providing the service and was ‘completely unjustified’.
The report added: ‘It cannot be right that a person bringing a divorce petition, in most cases a woman, is subject to what has been characterised in evidence to use as effectively a divorce tax.’
The committee stressed it was not opposed to the principle of charging court fees to litigants, describing a degree of financial risk as an ‘important discipline’ for those contemplating legal action. But the debate over the level of fees – and the research conducted to justify them – was open to question.
The committee said it was ‘unacceptable’ that ministers have yet to publish the results of a review into the effects of employment tribunal fees, six months after it was due to be released. The report noted a ‘troubling contrast’ between the speed with which the government introduced fees and its ‘tardiness’ in completing an assessment of the most controversial change made.
The report had been held back following evidence from justice minister Shailesh Vara in February, who said the government review would be published shortly. It was only following a letter from the MoJ in April that the committee realised it could not wait any longer.
The Law Society welcomed the report. President Jonathan Smithers said: ’The Law Society and the solicitors’ profession have raised repeated concerns, in written submissions and oral evidence, now echoed by the Justice Select Committee, that punitive courts and tribunals fee increases are denying citizens and businesses the right to justice. The government must now heed the views of experts from across and beyond the legal profession.
’We welcome and reiterate the committee’s unequivocal declaration that access to justice must prevail over generating revenue when the government is setting court and tribunal fees.’