Sexual harassment is high on the news agenda right now. Between the OBJECT and UK Feminista campaign calling on shops to ‘Lose the Lads’ Mags’, because they could constitute a form of sexual harassment; and the Morrissey report which examines a culture of harassment within the Liberal Democrat party, it’s an issue that is not going away. Which makes it rather alarming that your rights to challenge it are most definitely being eroded by the UK’s coalition government. The UK is soon to introduce a new regime of tribunal fees. These will come into force on 29 July 2013.
Among the changes being brought forward following a review of the tribunal system by former Employment Appeal Tribunal president Mr Justice Underhill are new fees for lodging employment tribunal claims, and for having a hearing on these claims. The new fees will apply to all employment tribunals, including those on discrimination and equality issues. So a woman challenging sexual harassment at work, anyone claiming for sexual orientation discrimination or discrimination due to gender reassignment, or a woman raising an equal pay claim (amongst many other sorts of affected cases) may have to pay a total of £1,200 if their case goes to a hearing . There is an initial fee of £250 to lodge the claim and a further fee of £950 to have a hearing, if yours is a ‘type B’ claim; or £160 and £230 respectively for a ‘type A’ claim. All of these processes are currently free. The new regime includes some degree of income-contingency, so those on low incomes may not be required to pay the full fees, under the same remission system which already exists for fees in the civil courts.
Despite this, we believe that the new fees are highly prohibitive and will undoubtedly put women off challenging unlawful behaviour at work. The fees are far higher than any other court fees in the UK. There has been very little media coverage of this important and unwelcome change. It seems to have been drowned out by (justified) concern over benefit changes e.g. the punitive ‘bedroom tax’. But this is just as important – it goes to the heart of women’s access to justice and their right to be fully equal members of the workforce.
In the context of a deeply sexist society in which sexual harassment at work is commonplace for many women – see for example the many thousands of testimonies logged on the Everyday Sexism project’s website – it is vitally important that women have access to legal remedies for work-based discrimination.
Women’s access to justice is majorly problematic in Scotland. Our specialist domestic abuse courts, of which we’re rightly proud, are creaking under the strain of a huge caseload. The main DA court in Glasgow now has a longer waiting time than the mainstream court. The Edinburgh Domestic Abuse court only takes referrals from two operational command areas in the city, so women in Edinburgh are experiencing a postcode lottery in the justice system. Our rape prosecution rate continues to be troubling, as is the use of medical records to discredit complainers. Legal aid is increasingly limited and women’s use of legal remedies such as non-harassment orders or exclusion orders is too low.
These new employment tribunal fees throw a new concern into the mix. How richly ironic that a political party which failed to properly deal with sexual harassment allegations should now be introducing a regime that may prevent women from bringing forward claims against harassing bosses and colleagues; or against other gendered inequalities in the workplace. It’s not good enough and women deserve better.
ZT is urging all our partners and supporters who oppose this move to write to Nick Clegg and ask him why his party is conspiring to limit women’s access to justice in this way. Please take action now – we can’t let the UK Government get away with putting a price on speaking out against sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Please write to: Deputy Prime Minister 70 Whitehall London SW1A 2AS and let him know you think these new tribunal fees are prohibitive, wrong and a barrier to women’s access to justice. Please let us know if you get a response. You might also wish to contact your own MP; you can find out their details at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/