In a groundbreaking decision today, the Supreme Court found that the employment tribunal fees introduced by the Conservative government in July 2013 are illegal, and should be quashed with immediate effect.
This is a very significant case. Not only is it a huge win for the trade union UNISON who brought the case and for working people denied access to justice, but also because it deals with constitutional issues at length.
The fees were introduced as part of a wider reform of the employment tribunal system, in response to the soaring number of claims and litigation costs. They meant that following unlawful behaviour by an employer, rather than being free, a payment was required of £390 to £1200 to issue the claim to court – depending on the complexity of the case.
The Government argued fees were required to deter unmeritorious claims and to contribute to the costs of the courts. However, with an almost 70% drop in the number of cases brought, and with no doubt over the majority of this being attributable to the fees, the cost objectives became directly in conflict with access to justice.
Employment law experts across the profession and the Law Society had repeatedly raised concerns in written and oral submissions that the fees became a barrier for legitimate claims where people were potentially at their most vulnerable, for example, subject to discrimination or with unpaid wages claims. This ruling now means the government has to listen.
Importantly, the court was not concerned with matters of policy but whether the government has exceeded its executive role by not gaining parliamentary approval through statute – much like the Article 50 case earlier this year.
The Supreme Court unanimously decided the fees were discriminatory and breach both UK and EU law. The government will now have to repay millions in reimbursement for those cases lodged since 2013.
The case is also significant in restating the principles of the rule of law and role of the judiciary. There is a brilliant section from paragraph 66 onwards on access to justice which since the judgment came out has been shared across the web.
It is not every day that the Supreme Court decides it is necessary to explain the importance of the constitutional right of access to the courts at length to the Ministry of Justice so it is worth capturing here (highlighting added):
The constitutional right of access to the courts
66. The constitutional right of access to the courts is inherent in the rule of law. The importance of the rule of law is not always understood. Indications of a lack of understanding include the assumption that the administration of justice is merely a public service like any other, that courts and tribunals are providers of services to the “users” who appear before them, and that the provision of those services is of value only to the users themselves and to those who are remunerated for their participation in the proceedings. The extent to which that viewpoint has gained currency in recent times is apparent from the consultation papers and reports discussed earlier. It is epitomised in the assumption that the consumption of ET and EAT services without full cost recovery results in a loss to society, since “ET and EAT use does not lead to gains to society that exceed the sum of the gains to consumers and producers of these services”.
67. It may be helpful to begin by explaining briefly the importance of the rule of law, and the role of access to the courts in maintaining the rule of law. It may also be helpful to explain why the idea that bringing a claim before a court or a tribunal is a purely private activity, and the related idea that such claims provide no broader social benefit, are demonstrably untenable.
68. At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.
69. Access to the courts is not, therefore, of value only to the particular individuals involved. That is most obviously true of cases which establish principles of general importance. When, for example, Mrs Donoghue won her appeal to the House of Lords (Donoghue v Stevenson  AC 562), the decision established that producers of consumer goods are under a duty to take care for the health and safety of the consumers of those goods: one of the most important developments in the law of this country in the 20th century. To say that it was of no value to anyone other than Mrs Donoghue and the lawyers and judges involved in the case would be absurd. The same is true of cases before ETs. For example, the case of Dumfries and Galloway Council v North  UKSC 45;  ICR 993, concerned with the comparability for equal pay purposes of classroom assistants and nursery nurses with male manual workers such as road workers and refuse collectors, had implications well beyond the particular claimants and the respondent local authority. The case also illustrates the fact that it is not always desirable that claims should be settled: it resolved a point of genuine uncertainty as to the interpretation of the legislation governing equal pay, which was of general importance, and on which an authoritative ruling was required.
70. Every day in the courts and tribunals of this country, the names of people who brought cases in the past live on as shorthand for the legal rules and principles which their cases established. Their cases form the basis of the advice given to those whose cases are now before the courts, or who need to be advised as to the basis on which their claim might fairly be settled, or who need to be advised that their case is hopeless. The written case lodged on behalf of the Lord Chancellor in this appeal itself cites over 60 cases, each of which bears the name of the individual involved, and each of which is relied on as establishing a legal proposition. The Lord Chancellor’s own use of these materials refutes the idea that taxpayers derive no benefit from the cases brought by other people.
71. But the value to society of the right of access to the courts is not confined to cases in which the courts decide questions of general importance. People and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which underpins everyday economic and social relations. That is so, notwithstanding that judicial enforcement of the law is not usually necessary, and notwithstanding that the resolution of disputes by other methods is often desirable.
72. When Parliament passes laws creating employment rights, for example, it does so not merely in order to confer benefits on individual employees, but because it has decided that it is in the public interest that those rights should be given effect. It does not envisage that every case of a breach of those rights will result in a claim before an ET. But the possibility of claims being brought by employees whose rights are infringed must exist, if employment relationships are to be based on respect for those rights. Equally, although it is often desirable that claims arising out of alleged breaches of employment rights should be resolved by negotiation or mediation, those procedures can only work fairly and properly if they are backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a fair and just system of adjudication will be available if they fail. Otherwise, the party in the stronger bargaining position will always prevail. It is thus the claims which are brought before an ET which enable legislation to have the deterrent and other effects which Parliament intended, provide authoritative guidance as to its meaning and application, and underpin alternative methods of dispute resolution.
The judgment continues along the same lines and is definitely worth reading in full on the importance of the rule of law, access to justice and the principles of a democratic government.