Justice at last

01 September 2017

In a landmark judgement on 26 July the Supreme Court ruled against the government – saying its introduction of fees for employment tribunals was unlawful.  DAVE PRENTIS, general secretary of Unison, the union which took the case to court, explains what this means for every worker in Britain

(this article featured in the September 2017 ASLEF Journal)


Dave PrentisThe right 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.

When tribunal fees were introduced in 2013, they tipped the balance in favour of exploitative employers and away from vulnerable workers. These unfair fees were letting law-breaking bosses off the hook, and leaving badly treated staff with no choice but to put up or shut up.

For those without the support of a union to cover the fees, justice seemed completely out of reach. And without the means to challenge these employers, the rights of many employees became meaningless.

People don’t choose to go to tribunals. They go because they have to. With fees as high as £1,200 – plus another £1,600 should a case go to appeal – it’s not hard to see why working people – especially those on low incomes – were deterred by such expense.

That’s why the unanimous Supreme Court ruling is so important. Not just for the 1.3 million public sector employees who belong to Unison, but for all employees and workers, everywhere.

It’s also 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.

Unison’s fight – and victory – 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.

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 his or her case heard, and there should never be a barrier to justice based on ability or willingness to pay arbitrary fees.

The coalition government – the Liberal Democrats’ role in the fees imposition must not be forgotten – claimed that introducing fees would stop so-called vexatious claims. In reality, as the Supreme Court pointed out, it was genuine cases that were affected – the type of claims employment tribunals were put in place to support.

But, as well as being a day of celebration, this victory 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. 

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 the 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 our vital protections.



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