LAWYERS and unions have voiced fears over access to justice for thousands of workers after figures showed the number of employment tribunals has dropped by more than two-thirds since the controversial introduction of fees for launching a case.
Almost 5000 fewer claims for issues such as unfair dismissal or discrimination were lodged in the nine months after the charges were brought in on July 29 last year, compared to the same period the previous year.
The figures - obtained under Freedom of Information laws - show Scotland has experienced an above-average drop, after UK-wide statistics showed claims had fallen by 59 per cent for the three months from January to March this year.
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A total of 7272 employment tribunals were accepted in Scotland between August 2012 and March 2013, but in the same period the following year the number had dropped to just 2296 - a fall of 68 per cent.
Legal officials claim the statistics show the fees are creating a barrier to justice for workers, while trade unions say this could lead to exploitation by bad employers.
The Law Society of Scotland has confirmed plans to contact the tribunal service and the Ministry of Justice to push for a review of the charges.
Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary for Unite, said: "This drop in claims is startling and deeply concerning. It merely confirms our worst fears that the detrimental changes to the tribunal system introduced last year would act as a barrier to justice for thousands of people across Scotland.
"Bad employers are exploiting this uncertainty by racing to the bottom on every aspect of employment; from terms and conditions to quick-fire dismissals, health and safety standards to dignity in the workplace. Now, more than ever, we need a strong and accessible justice system that protects the interests of working people."
Solicitor Brian McLaughlin, of law firm Fox and Partners, which is trying to appeal against the fees in court, added that the figures showed their initial concerns had been realised.
He said: "We warned the Government ahead of the introduction of these fees that it would limit access to justice, and this appears to prove that it has.
"If you have suffered an injustice or wrongdoing at work, you should be able to have your case heard."
Mr McLaughlin added: "The figures speak for themselves - people who have a genuine case but don't have the money will not be taking their case to a tribunal. It's decimating the country's labour laws."
The lawyer added that with only about half of all successful claims paid in full by employers, people are concerned they may pay the fees, win their case and still receive nothing.
Dundee was the worst affected area, experiencing a drop of 72 per cent over the nine-month period from 520 to 146 tribunals, closely followed by Glasgow, which saw claims fall by 70 per cent from 5148 to 1553.
Edinburgh and Aberdeen both saw a drop of 63 per cent, with 373 and 224 claims respectively made between August 2013 and March this year.
Andrew Alexander, head of access to justice at the Law Society of Scotland, said: "We believe that the introduction of employment tribunal fees may be creating a barrier to access to justice.
"It's important for people to have recourse to resolving workplace disputes and we are very concerned to see such a significant drop-off in the number of cases going before employment tribunals following the introduction of fees, and that there is no corresponding recorded rise in cases either appearing before the sheriff court or being dealt with through mediation.
"Investigations need to be carried out to see how people are managing workplace disputes and how the introduction of fees is affecting individuals."
Unison is currently challenging the fees in the English courts, claiming workers are being priced out of a fair hearing.
Dave Watson, Unison Scotland's head of Bargaining and Campaigns, said the move had "given unscrupulous employers a green light to adopt unfair and discriminatory practices, safe in the knowledge workers do not have the necessary means to take a claim against them".
UK Justice Minister Shailesh Vara said: "It is in everyone's interest to avoid drawn-out disputes which emotionally damage workers and financially damage businesses. That's why we are encouraging quicker, simpler and cheaper alternatives like mediation and arbitration.
"It is not fair for the taxpayer to foot the entire £74 million bill for people to escalate workplace disputes to a tribunal. And it is not unreasonable to expect people who can afford to do so, to make a contribution.
"As for those who cannot afford to pay, fee waivers are available."