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Lawyers unite to condemn court fee rise

Government fee increase will have a devastating impact on those with life-changing injuries and risk London's reputation as a global centre of dispute resolution, reports Catherine Baksi

2 March 2015

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Government plans to hike court fees by up to 600 per cent will have a devastating impact on ordinary and disadvantaged people seeking access to justice, lawyers' groups have warned, while City firms claim the changes will drive big ticket litigation abroad.

Responding to the government's latest consultation, which closed last week, the Law Society said the fee increases will have a devastating impact on those who have suffered life-changing injuries as a result of negligence and who cannot afford to bring court proceedings.

Despite overwhelming opposition to the proposals from the legal profession and judiciary, the government will increase the fee to issue proceedings for monetary claims to 5 per cent of the value of the claim for all claims over £10,000, with a maximum fee of £10,000.

Fees will also rise for possession claims and for a wide variety of general applications in the family and civil courts.

Chancery Lane, said the fee increases will hit not for profit organisations, such as housing associations and local authorities, which are already strapped for cash.

It said the government had failed to justify the 100 per cent and 66 per cent increase in application costs, which it said are 'disproportionate' to the work and costs involved for the courts service in issuing a claim.

President, Andrew Caplen, said: "The government appears to be on a mission to turn the courts into a profit centre, amounting to a flat tax on those seeking justice."

He said: "As well as affecting those who have been injured, the increases may leave small and medium sized businesses saddled with debts they are due but unable to afford to recover."

Caplen added: "Social landlords and council - which provide vital housing for older people, women fleeing domestic violence and those on low incomes - will be hammered by the government's latest proposals."

Financial struggle

The Bar Council highlighted the impact on those lacking mental capacity and their families, who would be forced to pay enhanced court fees in the Court of Protection.

Bar chairman, Alistair MacDonald QC, said: "Families and carers of those who lack mental capacity, as well as the sufferers themselves, often struggle financially. They should not be additionally or disproportionately burdened."

The Bar Council also warned that raising fees will lead to poor management of court proceedings.

Macdonald said: "It is right that court users make a contribution, but wrong in principle that court fees should be used to generate more money than the courts cost to operate.

Everyone benefits from having an effective, accessible system of legal redress, even those who do not actually end up using it."

Criticising the 'disproportionate' fee increases, the Civil Justice Council said the impact assessment makes the 'questionable assumption' that there will be no change in the number of applications following the introduction of increased charges.

It questioned the evidence-base and justification for the proposals, coming off the back of large fee increases imposed only eight months before these reforms were published and warns of their adverse impact on lower value claimants.

Law Society council member for civil litigation, Keith Etherington, said: "There is shared astonishment that the government has ignored the concerns of everyone in the profession and judiciary about the impact on access to justice."

He said: "The most vulnerable, most injured, most disabled, and most in need of the courts' help will have to stump up - it hard to see how anyone can do this.

"To front-load an action with the cost to the court service at the point of issue is fundamentally wrong, when the biggest cost to the court service is when cases go to trial."

Reputation risk

Last month, as the government's high profile Global Law Summit took place in London, marking 800 years since Magna Carta, the Law Society issued a pre-action protocol letter, in advance of a judicial review to the changes, signed by a wide range of representative groups, including the Bar Council, APIL and FOIL. It said the reforms, were tantamount to 'selling justice', contrary to the principles of Magna Carta.

Meanwhile, City firm RPC warned that the fee rises put at risk London's reputation as a global centre of dispute resolution. Increased fees, it suggests, will drive away business and encourage parties to choose courts Singapore, New York or Dubai, rather than litigating in the UK.

Research carried out for the Ministry of Justice, showed that 60 per cent of commercial lawyers think the competitiveness of the UK's legal sector will be damaged by the proposed increase.

RPC partner Geraldine Elliott, said: "The legal sector is one of Britain's great success stories but London as a venue of big ticket litigation could come under threat from other locations if this fee increase is imposed."

She noted: "If high value cases were less likely to be brought in the UK, this loss could easily outweigh any benefits that fee rises might generate for the UK economy."

Justice minister, Sailesh Vara, said the measures, which are designed to rake in an extra £120m a year for the courts service are required to "protect access to justice, and all the benefits that brings".

He said: "There is no alternative but to look to those who use the courts to contribute more towards their running costs where they can afford to do so."

Vara added: "Increasing court fees will never be popular or welcome. But I am sure that those who choose to litigate in our courts will continue to recognise the outstanding qualities our legal services offer and the excellent value for money they provide."

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