Senior Judges Speak out Against Government Court Fee Mistakes

Court FeesSenior members of the judiciary have harshly criticised the government with regard to increases in court fees. These increases, the judges feel along with many other parties, represent a serious mistake and are having a profound negative impact on the UK’s justice system.

Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, led the verbal attach and was supported by Sir Ernest Ryder and Sir James Munby. Appearing before the House of Commons’ justice committee, Dyson said that the increased fees were impeding the ability of many parties to receive justice under UK law.

“Ordinary people,” Dyson said, were being put off of taking their cases to court by the fees and this left them unable to uphold their rights under the law. Furthermore, it is not just individuals affected in this way, Dyson said, but also small and medium-sized businesses. These are exactly the kind of businesses, he pointed out, that “this government says time and time again they want to encourage.” In light of this, the introduction of a measure that keeps these businesses from upholding their legal rights seems like an especially momentous blunder.

Dyson was then asked about government claims that requiring lawyers and insurers to pay such fees up front would provide an effective safeguard. He responded: “They say that, but what is the research upon which that is based? I have not seen any.”

Lord Dyson also criticised the view taken by the Ministry of Justice ahead of the implementation of the fee increases with regards to demand. The Ministry believed that an increase in fees would not significantly harm demand, which Dyson called “an assumption [with a] very limited evidential base.” He went on to say that he had been “extremely sceptical” about this opinion.

The research carried out before the fee increases were implemented was something Dyson criticised especially harshly, describing it as “hopeless.” There was very little done, he said, beyond the making of 31 phone calls to various parties with an interest in the issue, and the judiciary had warned the government about the “real dangers” of putting up fees in the civil courts but had gone unheeded.

Sir Ernest Ryder added that, following the introduction of the reforms, employment tribunal cases had fallen by 70%. Sir James Munby, meanwhile, was critical of the increases in fees for divorce cases, which he said hit were hitting women disproportionately hard and effectively made for “another poll tax on wheels.”

Government Blundered With Rushed Surveillance Laws

When the government introduced the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act last year, it was nothing if not controversial. A lot of people were concerned about the fact it gave the government the power to collect communications data from suspects (who could and in many cases presumably would still prove to be innocent). The fact that an act allowing the government to intrude deeper into people’s private lives was rushed through parliament in just a few days – an absurdly short timescale compared to most other pieces of legislation – didn’t do much to endear it to the public or to civil rights organisations such as Liberty.

Now, one year on, a possibly unprecedented legal challenge has left the act itself and the rushed nature of its introduction looking like one big blunder on the part of the government. Not just the controversy of the act but concerns about its actual legality gave rise to a legal challenge from within the government’s own ranks, with two MPs taking the case against it to the High Court. A court challenge to government legislation from MPs is certainly very unusual, and some believe this is the first time it has happened at all.

Deputy Labour leader candidate Tom Watson and Tory David Davis challenged the act on the basis that the government had failed to comply with laws protecting the human rights of its subjects. It had the support of the human rights group Liberty, which criticised the way the act was “was privately agreed following discussions between the then three main party leaders” and then “became law within just three days.” This, Liberty said, “[denied] time for proper parliamentary scrutiny, amendment or even debate.”

The High Court has now decided that the challenge was perfectly well-founded; in its hurry, the government failed to comply with not one but two pieces of EU legislation designed to protect the rights of ordinary people. Both the Human Rights Act and the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights contain provisions designed to protect the right of a government’s subjects to privacy which the UK government has infringed. The ruling (against which the government says it will appeal) has basically cancelled out the offending parts of the act – though this will not take effect until next March, giving the government time to come up with a new, better thought-out plan that will be more compliant with international law.

The timing of the ruling is also unfortunate for the government. It coincides with wider discussions about government surveillance and individual privacy as the government seeks to introduce yet more legislation designed to help it monitor people’s private communications. David Cameron is championing a ban of popular messaging services like WhatsApp, based on a reluctance to “allow a means of communication between people which… we cannot read.” This particularly well-publicised measure forms part of a wider raft of unpopular proposals dubbed “the snoopers’ charter.”

Tribunal Fees Prove Detrimental to Number of Claims

The controversial introduction of the new tribunal fees enforced in July have amounted to a plummeting in employment tribunal claims in the final quarter of 2013. The final quarter of 2013 showed that the number of claims made were 9,801 which represents a 70% fall compared with the final quarter in 2012 and comparing to the third quarter of the previous year (2013) there was a similar 75% reduction. These figures were anticipated by many professionals and academics which forecasted that there would be a major slump in employment tribunal claims as a result of the increased cost of legal action which was described as a move aimed to reduce the burden from those employees lower in the pecking order.

The fees which were introduced by the government in July meant that it now costs £250 to issue a claim which is up from £160, depending on the type of claim, with further hearing fees of between £230 and £950. The head of employment at London company Kingsley Napley, Richard Fox who is also chairman of the Employment Lawyers Tribunal stated “it is now clear that many employees have been deterred from bringing tribunal claims since fees were introduced last year”. He believes that although this door is now shut for many employees as a means to resolve their employment troubles, other options will soon open such as “by turning to trade unions to fight their corner”.

Unison the trade union last month sought to challenge the legality of the introduction of the new tribunal fees. Their legal action was subsequently dismissed by the High Court. In his judgment in the case of Unison v Lord Chancellor Mr Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Moses stated that the trade union’s case was premature and stated that at this stage there was a lack of concrete evidence which is needed to overturn the regime.

The trade union which was unhappy with the decision reached stated their intention to take their case further by lodging an appeal in the Court of Appeal. They want the court to reconsider the facts and especially the argument put forward that the fees will have a much more disproportionate effect on women than initially projected. The figures were labelled as ‘shocking’ according to the trade union’s general secretary, Dave Prentis. He stated that the negative effect which the fees for the tribunal system brought is no “blatantly obvious”. He says that their introduction is simply unfair and that they should be reversed to the old system. The argument put forward by the general secretary is that money should be no obstruction to justice whether that be for employment of accident claims solicitors, and that it is atrocious that this is the effect which the government is bringing on many workers across the country wishing to seek remedies through the tribunal system.

Legal blunder as Busineess Secretary supports zero hour contracts

Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary offers support to zero hours contracts by stating that they have a place in today’s business.  The frowned upon zero hours contracts will not be banned despite many calling for them to be abolished. The Business Secretary believes they offer both workers and employees flexibility. Mr Cable says that he believes they have a place in our economy despite there being staggering evidence of their abuse.

He however made a proposal for a 12-week consultation period to take place in which the subject of banning companies from signing up its workers to “exclusivity contracts” will be discussed. Such contracts have often been abused when there is no job or prospect of future job but yet prevent workers from exploiting opportunities elsewhere.

Several business groups and lobby groups have warmed to the proposal, however several of the union leaders believe that the government is short on solutions as to how to resolve the problem of the zero hours contracts and appear desperate. The unions are too against the existing contracts which keep workers in the blind as to how many hours a week they are to work from week to week working on a call up basis.

The Business Secretary stated that the number of such contracts used by businesses is on the rise and the fact that they can be abused should not shadow the great flexibility they provide for people who have childcare arrangements to accommodate for on a weekly basis or for those who wish to top up monthly earnings. Mr Cable when on to state his stance by saying that he has no intention to support a proposal for the ban of the contracts. However, he proposes that he will work on people getting the best out of zero hour contracts as well as being fairly treated. The proposed consultation is due to focus on the exclusivity clauses as well as increasing worker protection.

The Secretary stated that a change in the law is not set to take place due to the fact that flexible workers are a key to some employers and their businesses as well as the fact that people need to have a choice as to their working arrangements.

John Wastnage, head of employment at the British Chambers of Commerce, stated that the value of zero hour contracts is undermined and its appreciation is often not publicised enough, with the exact knowledge on how they work commonly being lacked by those who are quick to criticise them.