Pregnant women and ethnic minority employees facing discrimination could be worst hit by a new £1,200 charge for taking their employer to a tribunal, critics have warned.
The furore broke out after the employment law changes came into effect yesterday, with the Unison trade union securing a judicial review after arguing it risked giving workers equal access to justice.
Justice minister Helen Grant promised that the government would monitor the impact of the charges on women and others at risk of discrimination "very, very carefully". "If [justice] is not done, of course we will look at it again," Grant added.
However, Labour's shadow equalities spokesperson Kate Green told the Huffington Post UK that disabled people, pregnant women and those from ethnic minorities could all be obstructed from seeking justice against their employer.
"This puts a price on justice for employees seeking redress if they experience discrimination at work – such as disabled workers whose employers refuse to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment, black and ethnic minority employees who suffer racial abuse or harassment from colleagues or managers, or women discriminated against when they become pregnant and find they’re out of a job."
"We already know that many women who experience discrimination at work as a result of pregnancy take no action because they don’t know how, or are too intimidated. It’s likely even fewer will do so in future as the cost of going to a tribunal acts as a further deterrent. What’s more, when women do take action, often employers insist cases are resolved via confidential agreements. Information on the true extent of discrimination is therefore hard to identify.
"So while I’m heartened that Helen Grant says if the changes impact adversely on women, the government will think again, I have to ask – how on earth will she know? The Government must urgently institute a proper programme for monitoring the extent of pregnancy discrimination at work, and ensure women who experience discrimination have a meaningful right to redress."
Many legal experts echoed Green's opposition to the employment tribunal fees.
Anne Pritam, employment partner at law firm Stephenson Harwood LLP said: "The fees are at best belt and braces and at worst a sledgehammer aimed at cracking the proverbial nut (or nutter, as some employers may regard their ex-employees)."
Sukhwinder Salh, a senior law lecturer from Birmingham City University, said: "This is a clear attack on employment rights and is yet a further obstacle that employees must overcome in their search for justice.
However, other lawyers argue that the reforms are worthwhile in order to save employers from dealing with spurious discrimination claims.
Deborah West, employment partner at law firm Temple Bright, said: "The majority of negative responses to the introduction of fees have come from the trade unions, who often fund their members’ employment related claims – and who therefore may have to pick up the tab for these new fees, and from law firms acting predominantly on behalf of those trade unions and therefore in both cases whose own interests also stand to be affected by the change.
"Employers regularly face unmeritous, and in some cases, wholly spurious claims, typically issued in the expectation that it will be cheaper for the employer to offer them a nuisance payment to settle the claim, rather than incur the greater cost and time of defending it. This practice has been facilitated by what, until yesterday, has been the lack of any financial consequences to the claimant."