By Daniel Hunter
More than 150,000 working people a year will have to pay for justice in one of the most sweeping shake-ups of employment regulations for half a century which came into force today (Monday), Unite, the country's largest union, has warned.
Those who wish to contest their unfair dismissal or discrimination cases at an employment tribunal (ET) will have to stump up to £1,200 upfront to have their cases heard. This is the first time since the relevant employment legislation was formulated in the 1960s that claimants have been asked to pay.
However, Unite has pledged to pay the ET costs of its members faced with these draconian measures that make British workers some of the worst protected in the EU.
Unite has also criticised the regulation, introduced in April 2012, which means that claimants have to pay for their witnesses' expenses and loss of daily earnings, even if they are successful.
Unite plans to continue to cover lawyers costs for its members, whereas commonly those not in a union have to sign a deal to pay up to 33 per cent of their compensation over to their legal representatives under a contingency fee agreement.
"What we are seeing today is injustice writ large as this worker-bashing government takes a sledgehammer to workers' rights - this is a throwback to Victorian times," Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said.
"Seeking redress for unfair dismissal and discrimination and other injustices in the workplace is a fundamental human right - but now ministers are putting up insurmountable financial hurdles for working people in pursuit of justice.
"We estimate that this will affect 150,000 workers a year. This is not an aid to economic recovery but a means to keep working people frightened and insecure.
"Unite will not stand idly by and let its members suffer such treatment - and the union will financially support members at employment tribunals. We will be campaigning strongly for this pernicious legislation to be repealed with the advent of a Labour government."
The government has said that those facing financial hardship can seek to get a remission (rebate) for the costs of an ET hearing - but Unite said the restrictions to gain a rebate are too tightly drawn and unfit for purpose.
Unite said that the government calculates that a 62-year-old couple with £3,000 in savings are 'wealthy' enough to pay the upfront fees to secure a hearing.
"Such barriers are unfair and unrealistic as people, with few savings, struggle to pay their bills because of the coalition's austerity measures," Unite director of legal services Howard Beckett said.
"The fees are wholly disproportionate. The median award by a tribunal in 2011-12 was only £4,560, with 20 per cent of awards less than the £1,200 fee.
"Union legal aid is now the only chance working people have of seeking justice. Being in a union is now essential if working people want access to justice and want to avoid losing their damages to pay for their own legal costs.
"If you are in a union, we will cover the outlay of tribunal fees and protect you against an adverse costs order if you lose and will ensure you receive 100 per cent of your damages.
"If you are not in a union, you will pay tribunal fees of £1,200 yourself; have to pay any adverse costs order should you lose and should you win you will lose up to 33 per cent of your damages for your own legal costs. It has never been a more important time to be in a union."
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