Employment tribunal fees create impunity to bosses abusing human rights, parliamentarians have said, accusing the Ministry of Justice of complacency on some of the barriers faced by people seeking access to justice.

The joint committee on human rights, publishing its Human Rights and Business 2017 report, urged the government to reduce tribunal fees, introduced in July 2013.

The committee, chaired by Harriet Harman QC MP, said evidence indicates that the government’s approach to business and human rights is ‘weakest’ in the area of remedy.

In a scathing attack on the ministry, the committee said there is a ‘lack of engagement’ from the department. ’This was particularly clear to us during our meeting with the minister, whose answers demonstrated a measure of complacency when confronted with some of the issues we have considered,’ it said.

Justice minister Sir Oliver Heald told the committee that exceptional case funding for legal aid is available for human rights violations, which relate to the violation of an ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] or EU law right.

However, the committee noted that most of the claims in question relate to tort claims against companies, rather than to actions of a public authority, as is required by the Human Rights Act.

Heald also told the committee that the government is consulting on some improvements to the employment tribunal fee scheme but that  overall the policy is working well.

The committee dismissed this assessment, saying the fees were clearly ’a barrier to victims seeking justice when they have suffered human rights abuses, including discrimination, at the hands of their employers and offer impunity for employers abusing human rights’.

The committee found that the circumstances in which victims of abuses by large companies find themselves tend to mean they cannot afford legal fees. The committee said: ’This means that, in order to have legal representation, they need to find a lawyer who will represent them on a no-win, no-fee basis. This significantly reduces the pool of lawyers willing to take on such cases.’

The Law Society, which gave evidence, said such cases can create significant cashflow issues for smaller firms, as cases often take years to be resolved.

Claims against multinational companies over rights abuses are invariably costly, the report notes. London and Bristol firm Deighton Pierce Glynn told the committee that cases can be skewed towards ’high quantum’ claims because of factual complexities, and translation, expert, travel and security costs. As a result, it can be ‘extremely difficult’ for individual victims of abuse outside the UK by a multinational company to fund lawyers willing to represent them, the committee said.

Other recommendations in the report include legislation to impose a duty on all companies to prevent human rights abuses, as well as a criminal offence of ’failure to prevent human rights abuses’ similar to offences created for bribery in the Bribery Act 2010. 

The committee also recommends legislation to enable prosecution of a parent company where human rights abuses are found further down the supply chain.

A government spokesperson told the Gazette: 'We welcome the interest shown by the [committee] in the area of business and human rights where the UK is a global leader, through our National Action Plan and the landmark Modern Slavery Act.

'We will study the proposals of the committee in detail and will provide a full response in due course.

'The government is committed to promoting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as the framework for encouraging responsible business performance.'