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Lord Chief Justice challenges ‘wisdom’ of fees rises

Lord Thomas urges the government to design ‘a better and balanced means’ of financing the courts

3 November 2016

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The Lord Chief Justice has questioned the financial rationale behind the rise in court and tribunal fees, saying the government should come up with alternative means of financing the justice system.

‘The judiciary remain very concerned about the implications for access to justice (for the more mainstream, lower value, and consumer cases) and the economic wisdom of the course being followed (in terms of business and commercial litigation),’ Lord Thomas said in his annual report, before urging the government to design ‘a better and balanced means of financing the courts and tribunals is found’.

The report, which otherwise mostly reviewed a number of initiatives within the courts service, said ‘a properly funded justice system was a core function of the state’, whether this was in relation to criminal or civil cases, or ‘in holding the democratic government to account and ensuring it acts fairly and according to law’.

‘Successive rises in fees and increasing costs of litigation are undoubtedly felt acutely in the more routine and consumer cases,’ the head of the judiciary went on. ‘Likewise, for high value and commercial litigation the wisdom of high issue fees must be questioned.’

Judges have spoken against the succession of fee increases. In evidence to the justice select committee earlier this earlier, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, alongside Sir James Munby and Sir Ernest Ryder, warned of the dangers enhanced ‘fees’ would have on the justice system.

‘I’m afraid, the risk of denying access to justice for a lot of people is so intense in those proposals,’ said Lord Dyson at the time. Meanwhile, Sir James Munby, wondered whether fees would continue to rise until ‘another poll tax on wheels’ was created.

The bulk of the reforms went on to be implemented. Although not limited to civil cases, the Lord Chief Justice said this was the area which has been most affected. Court fees are now 5 per cent of the value of the claim up to £10,000 and the government is consulting on fees of up to ‘at least’ £20,000.

The report also painted a grim picture of life on the bench, with overworked judges, low morale, and difficulties in recruitment.

Judicial attitude surveys conducted in 2014 and again in July 2016 have highlighted growing concerns over workload and well-being, which the Lord Chief Justice said must be addressed as part of the courts’ modernisation programme.

Improvements, he suggested, should include providing judges and magistrates with ‘up-to-date equipment to do their jobs efficiently’ and ensuring court buildings are modern and fit-for-purpose.

‘The judiciary faces unprecedented difficulties,’ he said. ‘The reduction in morale, the very significant fall in pay and pensions in real terms, an increase in uptake of early retirement, recruitment difficulties, and the changes being implemented through the Modernisation Programme will all be central to the review.’

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