Law Society of Scotland in tribunal fees review call
A leading legal body has urged the Scottish and UK governments to undertake an urgent review of employment tribunal fees.
The Law Society of Scotland said the fees, introduced a year ago, were behind an 81% drop in the number of cases going before tribunals in the UK.
It claimed they represented "a major barrier to access to justice".
UK ministers said it was "reasonable to expect people to pay" towards the £74m annual cost of the service.
The Scottish government said employment tribunals were a matter reserved to Westminster, adding that it did not support the charging of fees.
Fees of up to £250 to begin proceedings at an employment tribunal were introduced in 2013.
There are further charges as cases progress.
In a new report, the Law Society of Scotland argued that the level of the fees prevented people with valid claims from raising them at an employment tribunal.
Stuart Naismith, convener of the Law Society's Access to Justice Committee, said: "The effect of introducing fees, ostensibly to help meet the costs of running the tribunal system, has been drastic.
"We believe the current system is highly unfair and is preventing legitimate cases being heard by a tribunal.
"We have written to the both the UK government minister, Christopher Grayling MP, and the Scottish government Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill MSP, calling for an urgent review of fees."
Mr Naismith added: "Simply put, we believe that claims which would previously have been successful are not now being brought to the tribunal as a direct result of fees.
"This cannot have been the intention of government and an urgent review is now needed.
"Such a review should consider not only the level of fees, or indeed whether there should be any fees at all, but also the whole process of resolving workplace disputes, how the tribunal service should be funded, how capacity should be managed and, ultimately, how to fairly balance the system for both claimants and employers."
The report's findings were echoed by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Strathclyde, who argued that the introduction of fees had "severely limited access to justice for workers".
Their research examined the effect of employment tribunal fees on employees' lives and livelihoods.
Prof Nicole Busby, Professor of Law at the University of Strathclyde, said: "The imposition of fees has been the final straw for some claimants.
"But even before these fees were in place, tribunals did not provide accessible justice for all.
"There's a fear of being made to pay the employer's costs, being faced with intimidation tactics and potentially representing yourself in a process people have little knowledge of."
Responding to the Law Society's report, UK Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said: "It cannot be right that hardworking taxpayers should pick up the bill for employment disputes in tribunals.
"It is reasonable to expect people to pay towards the £74m bill taxpayers face for providing the service.
"But it is important to emphasise that the government has been very careful in ensuring that those who have limited means have fee waivers and are not excluded from seeking redress in tribunals.
"The government is on the side of people who want to work hard and get on.
"We have already reduced unemployment to the lowest level in five years, and created more than two million extra jobs in the private sector since 2010."
A Scottish government spokesperson said: "Employment tribunals are a matter reserved to Westminster.
"The Scottish government does not support the charging of fees for employment tribunals, something which was introduced by the UK government.
"On 24 June 2013, before the introduction of the new UK legislation, the Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism wrote to Jo Swinson MP making clear the Scottish government's opposition to the new measures."
Figures released by the Ministry of Justice last month showed the number of employment tribunal cases had plummeted in the preceding 12 months.
There were 5,619 cases between January and March this year, compared with 13,739 in the same period in 2013.
Officials said the dramatic reduction was partly explained by the resolution of several class action cases brought on behalf of airline cabin crew.
But unions claimed the new fees had put workers off taking employers to court.