R v Lord Chancellor (ex p Unison)  UKSC 51
This is my 100th post on this blog. I started it in June 2011 and had been intending to put up a commemorative piece, going over my favourite articles and looking forward to the future. I may still be doing this, but not now. Because the SC’s decision this morning is so significant that I have to cover it immediately
The facts of the case are simple. In 2013 the government imposed fees on applications to the Employment Tribunals, all of which had previously been free. By way of contrast the civil courts have charged fees for claims, applications and other activities for hundreds of years. But the ET fees were very high – £390 for the simplest claims, and £1,200 for the more complex ones, including Unfair Dismissal, Equal Pay and Discrimination claims. There were also fees imposed in the appeal tribunal – the EAT. These fees were generally to be paid in two stages – to issue, and to proceed to a hearing.
These fees were much higher than the fees for equivalent claims in the courts, and were in many cases to be paid by applicants who had just lost their jobs, so it is not surprising that immediately after they took effect – on 29th July 2013 – the number of applications slumped by about 80%. It would appear that many employers took the view that instead of negotiating a settlement at an early stage they would wait until they saw if the employee paid the fee to issue and to proceed to a hearing before negotiating, as the number of settlements reported to ACAS fell as well.
Now this case wouldn’t be important if all that happened was that the fees were reduced to something a bit more reasonable. This is clearly what is going to happen in the end, even though there is no indication of this as I write. No, the interest is in the way the Supreme Court laid out the manner in which it clearly intends to behave in the future, as Brexit happens and the ECJ fades out of the picture. Because it made it abundantly clear that despite the lack of the sort of constitutional supremacy that a Supreme Court has in say the United States or Germany it is going to lay down the law in a totally fearless way and is not afraid to extract constitutional rights from the Common Law if it can’t find them in statute.
The main speech is given by Lord Reed, with whom the other Justices in a bench of 7 agree. After setting out the facts, the statistical reports, and the history of the case, he sets out the constitutional principles – in this context the rights to access to the courts, and that statutory rights are not to be cut down by subordinate legislation. And he then gives a lesson on the constitution in extremely simple but devastating words:
66. The constitutional right of access to the courts is inherent in the rule of law. The importance of the rule of law is not always understood. Indications of a lack of understanding include the assumption that the administration of justice is merely a public service like any other, that courts and tribunals are providers of services to the “users” who appear before them, and that the provision of those services is of value only to the users themselves and to those who are remunerated for their participation in the proceedings. The extent to which that viewpoint has gained currency in recent times is apparent from the consultation papers and reports discussed earlier. It is epitomised in the assumption that the consumption of ET and EAT services without full cost recovery results in a loss to society, since “ET and EAT use does not lead to gains to society that exceed the sum of the gains to consumers and producers of these services”.
67. It may be helpful to begin by explaining briefly the importance of the rule of law, and the role of access to the courts in maintaining the rule of law. It may also be helpful to explain why the idea that bringing a claim before a court or a tribunal is a purely private activity, and the related idea that such claims provide no broader social benefit, are demonstrably untenable.
68. At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.
69. Access to the courts is not, therefore, of value only to the particular individuals involved. That is most obviously true of cases which establish principles of general importance. When, for example, Mrs Donoghue won her appeal to the House of Lords (Donoghue v Stevenson  AC 562), the decision established that producers of consumer goods are under a duty to take care for the health and safety of the consumers of those goods: one of the most important developments in the law of this country in the 20th century. To say that it was of no value to anyone other than Mrs Donoghue and the lawyers and judges involved in the case would be absurd. The same is true of cases before ETs. For example, the case of Dumfries and Galloway Council v North  UKSC 45;  ICR 993, concerned with the comparability for equal pay purposes of classroom assistants and nursery nurses with male manual workers such as road workers and refuse collectors, had implications well beyond the particular claimants and the respondent local authority. The case also illustrates the fact that it is not always desirable that claims should be settled: it resolved a point of genuine uncertainty as to the interpretation of the legislation governing equal pay, which was of general importance, and on which an authoritative ruling was required.
70. Every day in the courts and tribunals of this country, the names of people who brought cases in the past live on as shorthand for the legal rules and principles which their cases established. Their cases form the basis of the advice given to those whose cases are now before the courts, or who need to be advised as to the basis on which their claim might fairly be settled, or who need to be advised that their case is hopeless. The written case lodged on behalf of the Lord Chancellor in this appeal itself cites over 60 cases, each of which bears the name of the individual involved, and each of which is relied on as establishing a legal proposition. The Lord Chancellor’s own use of these materials refutes the idea that taxpayers derive no benefit from the cases brought by other people.
71. But the value to society of the right of access to the courts is not confined to cases in which the courts decide questions of general importance. People and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which underpins everyday economic and social relations. That is so, notwithstanding that judicial enforcement of the law is not usually necessary, and notwithstanding that the resolution of disputes by other methods is often desirable.
72. When Parliament passes laws creating employment rights, for example, it does so not merely in order to confer benefits on individual employees, but because it has decided that it is in the public interest that those rights should be given effect. It does not envisage that every case of a breach of those rights will result in a claim before an ET. But the possibility of claims being brought by employees whose rights are infringed must exist, if employment relationships are to be based on respect for those rights. Equally, although it is often desirable that claims arising out of alleged breaches of employment rights should be resolved by negotiation or mediation, those procedures can only work fairly and properly if they are backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a fair and just system of adjudication will be available if they fail. Otherwise, the party in the stronger bargaining position will always prevail. It is thus the claims which are brought before an ET which enable legislation to have the deterrent and other effects which Parliament intended, provide authoritative guidance as to its meaning and application, and underpin alternative methods of dispute resolution.
He then sets out the principle as found in all the standard constitutional documents, which some of us will remember from the beginning of a law degree – Coke’s Institutes, Blackstone’s Commentaries, and of course Magna Carta:
- In English law, the right of access to the courts has long been recognised. The central idea is expressed in chapter 40 of the Magna Carta of 1215 (“Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus rectum aut justiciam”), which remains on the statute book in the closing words of chapter 29 of the version issued by Edward I in 1297:
“We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”
Those words are not a prohibition on the charging of court fees, but they are a guarantee of access to courts which administer justice promptly and fairly.
For myself I prefer the traditional translation of the passage:
To no man will we sell, to no man will we deny or delay Justice and Right
He then quotes the cases leading up to the present day. You can see them yourselves from the link at the top of this piece.
Having looked at the principle he then applies it to the case. For court fees to be lawful they have to be set at a level that everybody can afford, taking into account any remission available. This is not being achieved. For a number of reasons:
- The sharp and substantial and sustained fall in the volume of cases … as a result of the introduction of fees.
- People are often obliged to resort to the ET jurisdiction involuntarily and unexpetedly.
- The Review Report said 10% of claimants said they didn’t bring a claim because they couldn’t afford to do so. This means reasonably afford to do so – not by having to sacrifice “the ordinary and reasonable expenditure required to maintain …an acceptable standard of living”.
- Hypothetical examples show that the cost to low-income families can be all their free income for up to 3 month. This is not affordable in the real world.
- The statutory power of remission is far too restricted to change matters. It is limited to exceptional circumstances, but the problem is systemic.
- Fees can prevent access to justice if they make it futile or irrational, such as in the case of low value claims for say unlawful deductions from wages, especially as many successful applicants recover nothing from their employers in the end.
The fees are therefore unlawful.
He scampered over the remaining points with a side-swipe at an attempted justification on economic grounds
99. The primary aim of the Fees Order was to transfer some of the cost burden of the ET and EAT system from general taxpayers to users of the system. … Similarly, in his written case, the Lord Chancellor states that, in pursuing the aim of transferring the costs of the tribunals from taxpayers to users, “the higher the fees are, patently the more effective they are in doing so”. This idea is repeated: in recovering the cost from users, it is said, “the higher the fee, the more effective it is”.
100. However, it is elementary economics, and plain common sense, that the revenue derived from the supply of services is not maximised by maximising the price. In order to obtain the maximum revenue, it is necessary to identify the optimal price, which depends on the price elasticity of demand. In the present case, it is clear that the fees were not set at the optimal price: the price elasticity of demand was greatly underestimated. It has not been shown that less onerous fees, or a more generous system of remission, would have been any less effective in meeting the objective of transferring the cost burden to users.
The fees are also held to be contrary to EU law as imposing limitations on the exercise of EU rights which are disproportionate, and hence contrary to Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU
Article 47 guarantees in its first paragraph that “everyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law of the Union are violated has the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal”. In terms of article 52(1):
“Any limitation on the exercise of the rights and freedoms recognised by this Charter must be provided for by law and respect the essence of those rights and freedoms. Subject to the principle of proportionality, limitations may be made only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others.”
As a result, and despite the Lord Chancellor arguing that the SC should only make a declaration that the current levels of the fees were too high the court disagreed in strong terms:
119. That argument mistakes the nature of the illegality with which we are concerned. This is not a case in which an administrative decision is being challenged on the basis that relevant considerations were not taken into account, or on the basis that the decision was unreasonable. The Fees Order is unlawful under both domestic and EU law because it has the effect of preventing access to justice. Since it had that effect as soon as it was made, it was therefore unlawful ab initio, and must be quashed.
Lady Hale gave a subsidiary speech explaining why the fees also amounted to unlawful discrimination on the grounds principally of discrimination against women, who made up a high proportion of the more expensive Type B claims. And the rest of the court agreed with both of them.
The fees are quashed. Everybody who paid them will be refunded (at a cost estimated at £32m) and until new lawful fees are fixed all ET and EAT proceedings are free. There is a lot of egg on the government’s face, mainly on Mr Grayling’s who was LC at the time they were imposed.
But more importantly the SC has shown that it will stand up for the rights implicit in the rule of law – that there must not only be laws but they must be effectively enforceble through the courts if need be. “That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.”
I have written on many occasions on the subject of the need to have an effective court system that the public can use, and if it wasn’t the middle of the night I would give you the cross references. The most prominent are Having Rights is Not Enough and Mediation – not the Complete Answer, but there are many others – it is one of my hobby-horses. I may return to this in post 101 shortly, especially after the news that the civil courts made a profit in the last year. Therefore it is really good news that the SC is doing the heavy lifting for us and won’t let a mere politician get in their way.
So that is why I feel that this is the most important SC case for years, even despite the Brexit case in January R v SoS (ex p Miller) That merely showed that the government was doing something that it could do but doing it the wrong way. This is showing that the whole basis of what they are trying to do is wrong, and that is what gives it the importance that it has.