Bringing An End To Unfair Tribunal Fees Is An Historic Victory For Workers' Rights

27/07/2017 11:05 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 11:05 BST
Andrew Winning / Reuters

The Supreme Court's decision is one of the most important victories in UNISON's history. It's also the most significant judicial intervention in the history of British employment and constitutional law.

But for many thousands of exploited low-paid staff, it is also the difference between being able to seek justice, or having to put up with exploitation and ill-treatment, even having to find another job elsewhere.

When tribunal fees were introduced in 2013, they tipped the balance in favour of exploitative employers and away from vulnerable workers.

Until Wednesday these unfair fees were letting law-breaking bosses off the hook, leaving badly treated staff with no choice but to put up or shut up.

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. For the care worker cheated out of the minimum wage, or the cleaner let go for the wrong reason, the government's fees must have seemed staggering.

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.

It's for this reason that UNISON knew that it had a moral obligation to act. Not just an obligation to the 1.3million public service employees who belong to our union, but to every person in work.

It's been a long time coming - a battle fought over almost four years through three different courts of law. But we're delighted that the result will potentially benefit everyone in work, whether they're a union member or not.

Sadly, for the many employees who couldn't afford the fees and were put off taking action against unlawful employers, this decision has come too late.

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. As the Supreme Court pointed out, in reality, it was genuine cases that were affected - the type of claims employment tribunals were put in place to support.

With cases down at least 70% since July 2013, and low-paid women the worst affected, access to justice was being denied on a grand scale.

But cases brought to employment tribunal do more than help staff fight for equality, safe working and fair treatment. They also go a long way in setting precedents for workers' rights in the future. Key laws on things like holiday pay and redundancy have sprung from important work at tribunals. And the working world is safer and fairer as a result.

This is great victory against unfair work practices, but many threats to workers' rights still remain. With Brexit on the horizon, threatening to undo vital protections, and an austerity government taking every opportunity to undermine public service, there's still plenty left for us to do.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON