“You want something sexy, eye-catching and that is free and universally popular and instantly applicable, that no one could possibly object to it”.
This quote from (yes, you’ve guessed it – The Thick Of it; from where all my blog quotes come) could very well have been said, with equal sarcasm, to the First Minister by one of her advisors as preparations were made for today’s keynote address to the annual SNP Conference.
There is a great deal of pressure on a leader to deliver a leaders speech at conference with the full razzamatazz associated with a raft of policy announcements. The bar of course has been set particularly low this year by Theresa May’s metaphorical performance in Manchester; and it is a very sad sign when such a speech is considered a success if the leader gets through it without being handed a comedy P45.
But the First Minister does not have that problem. Her difficulty is that all of the big and costed policy announcements were made in September’s Programme for Government; and the floundering Brexit negotiations prevent any big constitutional announcements.
So what is a First Minister to do? As the meerkat would say – simples.
The Scottish Government have done a lot to ameliorate the onslaught of anti trade union legislation introduced at Westminster. They have and continue to undertake a large body of legislative work aimed at improving access to Justice. With every right thinking person they opposed the penal employment tribunal fees that loaded the dice in favour of bad employers.
They have until now however ignored the damaging impact that the sister provision, court fees, has had upon access to justice for victims of personal injury and upon trade union finances.
Currently the Scottish Government are taking the Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Litigation) (Scotland) Bill through the Scottish Parliament. The Bill may not sound the most fascinating one but it will be very important in improving access to justice for victims of accident, injury and disease. It has however failed to address the issue of court fees entirely. This is an opportunity lost.
In light of the Supreme Court ruling on employment tribunal fees there is a strong argument that court fees are also illegal. But that is another, bigger, argument for another day.
The Trade Unions’ immediate demand is simpler and less grand. It is not to scrap court fees (yet). They simply want the point in the process when court fees are paid to change to make the system fairer and less financially burdensome on them. Currently court fees are paid on a pay-as-you- go model. This places a heavy burden of cash flow funding the civil justice system on trades unions. The trades unions simply ask that the financial burden on them is lifted to some extent by the moving the payment of court fees to a deferred payment method. This would greatly assist trades unions and their members and it would mirror all other aspects of civil court costs where fees and other payments are deferred to the end of the case.
It is a small ask that will have a significant benefit to trades unions and in terms of improving access to justice.
Returning to Olly’s quote, it may not be that sexy but for trade unions it will certainly be eye catching, universally popular and instantly applicable. It will be free and the only people who could possibly object are the insurance industry who wish to do everything to erect barriers to access to justice. We should certainly not let them or such aims stand in the way.
Over to you FM! I’ll be listening intently at 3.20.
Blog by Patrick McGuire, Partner