Earth calling Remission Control … come in, Remission Control … is anyone there?

Back in January, I noted on this blog that the tribunal fees remission scheme was providing ministers with a very small fig leaf as they sought to fend off increasingly alarmed suggestions that the hefty employment tribunal fees introduced in July 2013 were blocking workers’ access to justice. And today we learned – from the Ministry of Justice’s reply to a written PQ by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna – that just 3,913 ET claimants (a mere six per cent of all claimants) were granted fee remission between 29 July 2013 and 30 June 2014 [but see also Postscript, below].

As the super-brained and hyper-cool Michael Reed of the Free Representation Unit was first to point out – please note that Michael and I were separated at birth, but he had the more privileged upbringing – the Ministry’s reply raises a number of questions.

The first being, why did it take the Ministry three months to answer the PQ, which was tabled by Umunna on 15 July? It’s not as if the PQ was especially complicated. It simply asked how many ET fee remission applications have been made and granted since 29 July 2013, and at what administrative cost. You’d think a cost-cutting Justice Secretary like Chris Grayling would have made sure he had such data at his fingertips.

The second question – posed by my long lost twin in his blog post – is: why did grants of fee remission increase so substantially from March this year, despite the number of ET cases (and claims) continuing to plumb the depths? From just 144 in December 2013, and 114 in February 2014, grants of remission shot to 753 in March, and 754 in May. Did awareness of the fee remission scheme (and so the number of applications) suddenly increase? Or did HMCTS’s decision-making suddenly become less severe? We simply cannot say, because we don’t have the necessary data on fee remission applications.

And that takes us to a third question: why was the Ministry unable to say, in its reply to Umunna’s PQ, how many fee remission applications were made between 29 July 2013 and 30 June 2014?

The long answer to this question is set out in my multi-part post on this blog in February. In a nutshell, in 2013 the Ministry of Justice shelled out some £2m on a shiny new ET fees & remission database with, er, no reporting tools. That is, an ET fees & remission database incapable of producing any basic data such as the number of fee remission applications made. And, as well as pocketing £2m of hard-working taxpayers’ dosh, the company that delivered this duff database – Jadu Ltd – got nominated for an award. Did someone mention justice?

So perhaps the most shocking revelation of the Ministry’s reply to Umunna’s PQ is that, 15 months after Jadu’s £2m ET fees & remission database went live in late July 2013, those basic reporting tools still don’t exist (or, at least, have “not yet been assured to sufficient standards”). Who the **** in the Ministry is overseeing this project? Clearly not the same minister or official overseeing the legal aid budget.

And the last question is, how does Michael always get his blog post out first? Do they not have any actual work to do at the Free Representation Unit? You know, representing all those vulnerable workers subjected to wage theft by rogue employers in their tribunal claims. Oh, hang on …

Postscript (21 October): Today we learned, from the Lord Chancellor’s evidence to the judicial review of his ET fees regime in the High Court, a few details on remissions that the Ministry of Justice somehow managed to leave out of its reply to Chuka Umunna’s PQ. It seems that just 2,178 (56 per cent) of the 3,913 remissions granted between 29 July 2013 and 30 June 2014 were to individual (i.e. single) ET claimants – the other 1,735 remissions being to claimants in multiple claimant ET cases (1,530) and to applicants to the EAT (205). I’m somewhat surprised that so many remissions have been to claimants in multiple claimant cases, but let’s leave that point for another day. For we also learned that the figure of 2,178 remissions granted to single claimants includes 232 remissions of the hearing fee.

While we cannot be certain without seeing more detailed figures, it seems reasonable to assume that very few if any of the 232 claimants granted remission in relation to the hearing fee will not also have had remission for the issue fee. In other words, 232 those remissions were double counted in the total of 2,178 claimants. Which means only 1,946 (7.7 per cent) of all 25,284 single claimants obtained some remission (full or partial) in relation to their case.

Now, 7.7 per cent is a long, long way below the 31 per cent predicted by the Ministry of Justice in September 2013, in its final impact assessment of the remission scheme, even before we allow for the much greater fall in ET claim/case numbers than the Ministry anticipated. In 2012/13 there were 54,704 single claims, and it is against such figures that grants of remission should really be judged, as that is (roughly) the number of single claimants we could have expected in the 12 months up to June 2014 were it not for the deterrent effect of fees. That is, only 3.6 per cent of those who might have been expected to make an ET claim in the 12 months up to June 2014 had their access to justice protected by the fee remission scheme.

The ET fees remission scheme has so far been a very small fig leaf.

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