At remission control, the lights are on but nobody’s home

Previously on this blog, I have examined parts of a rather grand dismissal of concern about the impact of ET fees by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Shailesh Vara. Responding to a question by Diana Johnson MP, in which Ms Johnson noted the drop in ET sex discrimination claims of some 84 per cent since July 2013, Mr Vara said:

The situation is a lot more complex than the honourable Lady makes out. First and foremost, anyone who does not meet the financial criteria has a waiver and can go to court. Secondly, there have been a lot of pre-determinations by Acas. Employment is going up and there are fewer applications. There are a lot of factors and she does herself no credit by simplifying matters.

In this post I’m going to focus on the hapless junior minister’s reference to what he calls ‘a waiver’, but which most of us know as fee remission.

Now, as The Smiths sang, it is easy to laugh and to hate, but it takes guts to be gentle and kind. So let’s be gentle and kind to Mr Vara, and recognise that – terminology aside – what he says on fee remission is all of a piece with what other ministers have said on many occasions. Here, for example, is business secretary Vince Cable in November 2011, during the speech in which he announced the Coalition Government’s intention to exploit a legal power slipped through by Labour ministers in 2007, in order to shamelessly introduce ET fees without any parliamentary debate on the principle of doing so:

I want to make it very clear that for those with a genuine claim, fees will not be a barrier to justice. We will ensure that there is a remissions system for those who need help.

And, most recently, here is BIS minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe in the House of Lords earlier this week (during debate on the Small, Business, Enterprise & Employment Bill):

It is important to emphasise that the Government have been very careful to ensure that fee waivers are available for those people of limited means in order that they are not excluded from seeking redress through tribunals.

Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence from employment law practitioners, and the very limited amount of statistical data released by Mr Vara’s Ministry of Injustice to date, indicates that fee remission has done very little indeed to protect the access to justice of “those of limited means” since July 2013. As described elsewhere on this blog, until this week pretty much the only published data was that on grants of remission set out in the Ministry’s partial reply in October last year to a parliamentary question by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna. Together with a bit more information on grants of remission included in the written evidence of a Ministry official in defence of UNISON’s second application for judicial review of the fees regime, that PQ reply told us that just 1,946 (10.4 per cent) of all 18,660 single claimants in the 11-month period 29 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 obtained some remission (full or partial) in relation to their case.

However, this week, in reply to a further parliamentary question by shadow BIS minister Ian Murray, the Ministry provided figures on grants of remission for July to December 2014. This tells us that there were 3,459 remission grants to single claimants in that period. However, we know from the breakdown given in the Ministry official’s evidence to the High Court that some 10 per cent of those grants will have been in relation to the appeal fee. And as a claimant granted remission for the appeal fee is also very likely to have received remission for the issue fee, those grants are double-counted. So we need to reduce the figure of 3,459 by 10 per cent, to 3,113. (Yes, the ’10 per cent’ may have gone up or down in recent months but, as there’s no way of telling from the Ministry’s reply, let’s just run with it).

I imagine Mr Vara would want us to dwell on the fact that, applying this 10 per cent reduction to the most recent quarter for which both the ET claim and remission grant figures are available – July to September 2014 – about 1,400 (33 per cent) of the 4,252 single claimants obtained full or partial fee remission. Which is a lot more respectable than the 10.4 per cent figure above.

To my mind, there are three possible explanations of this increased respectability: the number of remission applications has increased in recent months; or the Ministry’s decision-making has become less severe in recent months; or the extent of double-counting of claimants granted remission in respect of both the issue and the appeal fee has increased in recent months.

Indeed, we do know that the Ministry relaxed the evidence requirements for fee remission applications at the end of June 2014, and we can expect that to have increased the success rate, even if only slightly. And I would’t be surprised if the extent of double-counting has increased, but we won’t know until the Ministry provides a breakdown of remission grants to single claimants by issue fee and hearing fee.

Unfortunately, we also have no idea how many applications for fee remission were made, and how many were refused, in any of these time periods, because the Ministry of Injustice paid some £2m for a new ‘ET fees & remission’ database that, thanks to a lack of functional reporting tools, has yet to produce any reliable data, almost 18 months after it went live on 29 July 2013. (The above figures on remission grants are taken from a separate, finance system database). It seems we have to wait at least until publication of the next set of quarterly tribunal statistics, in early March, for the first figures on fee remission applications, grants, and refusals from that database.

dilbertproject

Whatever, the latest figures on remission grants are more meaningfully judged not against the actual number of claims in that period, but against the number of claims we might have expected to see, had fees not been introduced in July 2013. In my previous post on the other parts of Mr Vara’s reply to Diana Johnson, I set out two alternative (but ultimately very similar) projections for the number of single claims we might have expected to see in 2013/14.

Applying the most recent remission grant figures (for the six months July to December 2014) to the average of those two projections, we get a figure of 12.4 per cent of the single claimants we might have expected over a full year obtaining remission in relation to their case. Which is not so respectable, and certainly still well below the 31 per cent that the Ministry predicted in late 2013, in its final impact assessment of the (revised) remission scheme.

So, as with the rest of Mr Vara’s reply to Diana Johnson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice does himself no credit by claiming that “anyone who [meets] the financial criteria has a waiver and can go to court”. The fee remission scheme appears to be protecting access to justice for only one in eight of the workers we could expect to be issuing a (single) tribunal claim, had fees not been introduced.

Which is entirely to be expected, given the complexity and narrowness of the eligibility criteria – the fee remission application form and explanatory notes run to 30 pages. Perhaps most significantly, any claimant in a household which has been prudent enough to build up modest savings of £3,000 or more will not qualify for any remission. So much for all those ministerial speeches about the need for people to take personal responsibility and put money aside for rainy days. If you and your partner have saved up £4,000 to help with the cost of the baby you’re soon to have, and then your employer unlawfully selects you for redundancy because you are pregnant, you’re probably not going to risk £1,200 of those precious savings pursuing a tribunal claim.

Finally, if you’re wondering why I haven’t included a nice little graph charting the number of remission grants in each month from July 2013 to December 2014, it’s because the figures for July to December given by the Ministry in its reply to Ian Murray are not compatible with the figures for the 11 months up to June 2014 given by the Ministry in its reply of 15 October to Chuka Umunna. The former include grants in multiple claimant cases (just 31 in six months), whereas the latter include all the claimants in multiple claimant cases (1,530 in 11 months), though we only know this from the Ministry official’s evidence to the High Court.

 

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