George Osborne used his speech to the Tory party conference to announce that in future employment tribunals will charge fees to hear claims. Under his proposals, claimants will have to pay £250 to issue a tribunal claim, and a further £1000 to have the claim heard. Employers defending a claim will pay nothing.
The proposed fee is punitive: it is around ten times more than it would cost to issue a similar claim in the county courts, on which the tribunals are modelled.
To understand the sheer malice of the announcement, it must be borne in mind that over a third of all tribunal claims in any year are claims for unpaid wages. Many involve employers simply refusing to pay their workers the wages that are owed to them. Around 70 percent of wages claims are won by the workers bringing them.
The ground was prepared with the help of a press campaign to the effect that most tribunal claims are vexatious (but around 60 percent of all claims, whether for wages, unfair dismissal or discrimination, succeed at a final hearing) and that the claimants are rogue former employees receiving pay-outs in several tens of thousands (the median award in dismissal claims is less than £5,000). Meanwhile, other proposals are anticipated to extend the time that an employee has to be in work before they can bring an unfair dismissal claim to two years, and to make it easier for companies to require unsuccessful claimants to pay the employer's legal costs.
The tribunal system is far from perfect. Its over-reliance on litigation pushes power upwards in a union and away from the rank and file. Prospects are better when workers strike to prevent dismissals or discrimination.
That said, the proposals will reduce tribunal litigation on the bosses' terms. Osborne's message to employers is simple: don't pay your workers - they won't be able to afford to sue you.