Unison have won the legal battle they launched to challenge the legality of the Employment Tribunal fee system, which they argued are preventing many workers, especially the low-paid, getting justice.

The landmark ruling marks the end of a three and a half year legal battle by Unison to do away with tribunal fees and enable any employee to bring a tribunal claim, regardless of their financial position.

Tribunal fees were introduced in July 2013, meaning anyone who wanted to bring their employer to tribunal would have to pay costs of up to £1,200, which Unison said meant some companies were able to escape punishment because people didn’t have the money to pursue a claim. The government launched a consultation to review tribunal fees earlier this year, looking at whether or not the additional cost had deterred people with genuine claims.

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the union, which had argued that the fees of up to GBP 1,200 discriminated against women and other groups of workers.

Unison said the decision means that employment tribunal fees will now be scrapped. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Government was acting unlawfully and unconstitutionally when it introduced the fees four years ago.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said:

“This is absolutely a tremendous victory, it’s probably the biggest victory of employment rights in this country.”

Fees for those bringing employment tribunal claims have been ruled unlawful, and the government will now have to repay up to £32m to claimants.

The government introduced fees in 2013 to reduce the number of malicious and weak cases, but that led to a 79 per cent reduction over three years.

Joe Aiston, senior associate in the Employment, Pensions & Mobility group at international law firm Taylor Wessing comments:

“This is a huge decision both legally and politically and one of the strongest examples of the court system being willing to limit the government’s power to legislate. The Supreme Court has upheld Unison’s challenge to the Tribunal Fees regime on both major strands of the argument; that fees prevent access to justice and the way the fees are structured are discriminatory against women. The Lord Chancellor has also confirmed that fees already paid are to be reimbursed. As well as having a massive effect on tribunal process and claimants’ ability to bring claims, this will also result in a significant hit on the court system’s coffers.”

Nicholas Robertson, head of Employment in London at Mayer Brown:

“This is a stunning victory for Unison and easily the most significant employment case for many years.  In short the tribunal fees system has been declared unlawful from the date it was created and so is now quashed with immediate effect.   Claimants who are issuing claims from today onwards will not have to pay any fees to do so, since the Tribunals have power to charge fees.  Claimants who have issued and paid fees will be entitled to have these repaid to them by the State, because the Government undertook to repay such fees if the legal challenge was successful.  Employers who have had to pay fees  to a Claimant following the loss of an Employment Tribunal case may be able to claim the cost of those fees back too (although that is less clear cut).

“It remains to be seen if Tribunal claims will return to the levels before the introduction of the fees regime. My view is that they will not return to those levels because the ACAS mandatory conciliation scheme will continue to encourage parties to settle claims before litigation.  Now that the fees regime for Employment Tribunals has gone, I suspect employers will be more likely to settle at the ACAS stage, rather than waiting to see if Claimants follow through and issue a claim.”