Speaking to the TUC Congress this week, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, outlined the Labour party’s proposals to reform the Employment Tribunal system, if they are elected at next year’s general election.
Mr Umunna pledged to replace the existing Employment Tribunal system with “a fairer system to ensure that affordability is not a barrier to employees seeking redress in the workplace,” going on to say “the system has prevented the poorest and most vulnerable employees from upholding their rights…increasing insecurity at work at a time when families have been hit by the cost of living crisis.”
July 2013 saw the introduction of fees for claims to the Employment Tribunal – intended to prevent vexatious claims and ensure that the Tribunal system was funded by its users. To bring a claim for unpaid wages to a Tribunal hearing an employee now has to part with a total of £390. These fees rocket to £1,200 for claims of Unfair Dismissal and Discrimination.
Recent statistics for the Employment Tribunal from January to March 2014 demonstrate a drop of 85% in unpaid wages claims and an overall drop of 58.4% in all Employment Tribunal claims compared with the same period in 2013.
Fears amongst employment law practitioners and commentators are that the fees are not just removing vexatious claims but also preventing those with genuine claims from being able to access justice.
It is interesting to see that Mr Umunna is not just suggesting a review of the fee structure but a wider reform of the Tribunals system, despite the fact that the Employment Tribunal Rules of Procedure have only recently been updated. This raises many questions – if a full reform is taking place, what form might this take? Perhaps the Employment Tribunal could be seen as the last resort if other methods of dispute resolution are not successful? Could we be seeing a greater role for arbitration or non-judicial mediation for employment disputes?
There is clearly some benefit to fees being payable in the Employment Tribunal, though these do seem a major barrier to claims proceeding to the Employment Tribunal. Would one option be for these fees to be paid only after the event by the losing party, once a Judge has made their decision – if the case succeeds the Respondent pays, if the case fails the Claimant is ordered to pay?
There are plenty of options and it is clear that these issues need to be addressed, to ensure that employees are able to enforce their basic employment rights. Perhaps addressing the issue of fees and introducing alternative dispute resolution methods may achieve the original aim of reducing the overall burden on the Tribunal but without putting the employee at a disadvantage.