Thanks to James English of Hempsons solicitors for preparing this case summary
The High Court has today handed down its judgment in Unison's application for judicial review to challenge the employment tribunal fees system. The challenge was unsuccessful. Lord Justice Elias delivered the leading judgment.
The scheme was challenged on 2 grounds. Firstly, it was said to be unlawful under the EU principle of effectiveness, as it was virtually impossible or exceptionally difficult for potential applicants to bring a claim. The enforcement of Convention rights must be practical and effective rather than theoretical or illusory. Secondly, it was said that the scheme was indirectly discriminatory.
As far as the principle of effectiveness was concerned, the High Court reviewed the limited case law where it was alleged that the cost of litigation denied the Claimant an effective remedy, including the costs of legal representation or by court fees. InPodbielski and PPU Polpure v Poland (2005), the CJEU found that the obligation to pay a fee to pursue an appeal breached the right to a fair and public hearing under Article 6. Limitations on a party's ability to bring proceedings must pursue a legitimate aim and must be proportionate. One of the reasons the scheme was held (rather cynically perhaps) to have breached Article 6 was that the principal aim seems to have been the State's interest in deriving income from the court fees.
The High Court held that any restrictions must satisfy the proportionality test. Even if it is not excessively difficult to bring a case, an unnecessary hurdle which serves no useful purpose would not be proportionate. However, what proved fatal for the case was the lack of evidence. Before the Divisional Court, Unison had relied upon notional rather than actual Claimants. Before the High Court, they still had no actual individuals for the court to consider, Lord Justice Elias stating "the court has no evidence at all that any individual has even asserted that he or she has been unable to bring a claim because of cost." Instead, Unison relied on the recent employment tribunal statistics which demonstrated a substantial fall in claims. The High Court could not say if the potential Claimants were unable or unwilling to proceed.
As for indirect discrimination, the case focused on the grounds of sex. Type B claims (including discrimination and equal pay) attract a higher fee than Type A claims. The High Court held that a difference in fee could be justified by the level of service or resources required. As for the argument that women were more likely to bring such claims, the court focused on the appropriate pool, and this included male and female claimants. In any event, the scheme could be justified on the basis that those who used the employment tribunal system contributed to its running, it made the system more efficient, and it encouraged settlement.
The judgment clearly hints at 'round 3', when an actual disadvantaged Claimant may bring a test case. And in any event, the Court has given permission to appeal.