Employment Law- looking to the future
Our public opinion research published last year showed rising support across all social classes for employment law advice to be paid for by the state. Despite this, the availability of free employment law advice suffered a devastating blow in April this year when the government withdrew legal aid for it. So what can employees do if they face a problem at work?
There has always been a significantly high number of unrepresented applicants in employment tribunals, for example a study in 1989 found that 36% of applicants were unrepresented. However, all the indications are that representation does significantly improve an applicant’s chances of success. Of course the problem is paying for this and self help increasingly might be the only option for many.
Most firms specialising in representing employees rely on a mixture of means to pay for their services. Legal expenses insurance, often bought by the public as an add-on to house insurance, is a common source of funding. According to Chris Benson, a solicitor specialising in employment and discrimination law at the firm Leigh Day, many of the cases the firm takes on are funded in this way. Leigh Day, as do other solicitors, also offers no win no fee services, through Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs).
Under a CFA the lawyer takes a percentage of any award made by the tribunal or, settlement agreed between the parties to cover their costs. To keep the cost down for clients Benson says “we try to stick to taking 25%, instead of the maximum of 33% which we are permitted to take,” but he warns that the introduction of fees for employment tribunal cases in July will make it more difficult for firms to take cases on a CFA.
Fees for issuing a claim in an unfair dismissal case, the most common type of claim brought before an employment tribunal, are now £250 and a further fee of £950 is payable if the case goes to a hearing. The median award for unfair dismissal is only around £4,500 and this means it will be uneconomical for many cases to be taken on by solicitors, as the value of the case will not be sufficient to cover both the lawyer’s percentage and the tribunal fees on a CFA.
Employees without insurance or, who are not members of a trade union, are often reliant on Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and other charities to provide free advice on employment rights. Many of these advice centres are struggling to meet demand after the withdrawal of legal aid. Rochdale Law Centre is a typical example of an agency which lost legal aid funding for employment law from April. It was forced to make some staff redundant and to set-up a fee based service for those people who could afford to pay, but Gill Quine a solicitor at the Law Centre acknowledges that, “many vulnerable people with smaller claims” will not be able to afford the new service.
Earlier this month LAG published the tenth edition of Employment Law- an advisors handbook. The book is written by Tamara Lewis, a solicitor and employment law expert. Our employment law books have always sold well to lawyers, advisers and trade unionists. In recent years we have noticed sales to the public of Lewis’s book and the book Employment Tribunal Claims: tactics and precedents, a new edition of which is due to be published soon, have been increasing. We believe that this is due to people wanting to be better informed about their rights. Many also seem to be using our books as a self help guides.
LAG will continue to campaign for free publicly funded services in employment law, as we believe this is what the public want. In the meantime the options are stark for employees needing advice as free advice services are cut and CFA’s become less viable. We believe that in the future growing numbers of employees will try to represent themselves in disputes with employers due to the lack of any other alternative.