In 2013 the Tory-led government attacked one of the UK’s most fundamental principles – the ability to pursue justice through the courts.
Ministers introduced reforms that meant people looking to address injustice at work would have to pay up to £1,200 to have their case heard at a tribunal.
The affect was immediate and, after just one year of the reforms being imposed, the number of employment tribunals fell by 70 percent.
Justice was no longer free for cases involving things like discrimination, bullying or unfair dismissal, so that those who couldn’t afford it but needed it most – predominantly workers in low-paid occupations – were unable to access the courts.
The fees made a mockery of employment rights by relegating them to useless sentences in dusty legal volumes for those who couldn’t pay to have them heard at a tribunal.
That’s why last week’s Supreme Court ruling (July 26) that the fees were “inconsistent with access to justice” is of the utmost significance.
Not only for Unison, who fought the case, but for every worker in the country.
By ruling that tribunals should be affordable for everyone, the Supreme Court struck down legislation drawn up for the sole purpose of attacking the rights of working people.
Speaking after the ruling, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey described the victory as “historic”.
He said, “Unite has stood by our members and covered their tribunal costs ensuring that they can get a hearing but it was an appalling decision by the Tories to say that a worker’s access to justice was dependent on the size of their wallet.
“We congratulate Unison on this victory today because this will now restore some balance to the workplace.
“However, workers will not forget that this case was only made necessary because the Tory-led government turned its back on workers. The Conservative government is, for sure, no friend of working people.”
Indeed, though the Tories have suffered a major setback in their attempts to erode workers rights, the celebrations are necessarily short-lived because one thing is certain — as long as the Conservatives remain in power there will be further attacks on the rights of working people.
One of the most dangerous of those attacks is almost certainly to come in the form of Theresa May’s “Repeal Bill”, which is designed to transfer EU laws into British ones after Brexit.
The bill gives sweeping powers to the government to change employment legislation without parliamentary oversight.
McCluskey explained, “There are too many on the Conservative benches itching to use Brexit to destroy a whole raft of protections and who will waste no time in attacking vital laws… the public cannot trust (the government) to deliver a Repeal Bill that will be safe from the hardliners on the Tory benches.”
The defeat of the government’s vindictive tribunal fees, however, is a timely reminder for the Tories that trade unions, including Unite, will defend against assaults on workers’ rights and protections.