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Government to press on with further court fee rises

‘Access to justice should prevail over generating income from court users,’ says Law Society president

9 November 2016

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The government will press ahead with further court and tribunal fee increases despite calls from MPs to reconsider the proposed plan until the effect of earlier rises on access to justice has been fully assessed.

In its response to the justice select committee’s report on courts and tribunals fees, the Ministry of Justice claimed the UK’s justice system was ‘the envy of the world’ and that it was ‘vitally important to make sure that our courts and tribunals service is properly and sustainably funded’.

The MoJ said the cost of the justice system to taxpayers last year was £1.2bn, a figure which was ‘unsustainably high’. Looking ahead, it wants to ‘continue to look for opportunities to increase income where they are justified’.

The news was condemned by the president of the Law Society, President Robert Bourns, who called for recent increases to be reversed pending proper assessment of their impact on access to justice. Bourns said it was not unreasonable to ask people to contribute to the costs of the courts and ‘the principle of equal access to justice must prevail over generating income when it comes to setting court and tribunal fees’.

Two months ago, the government also rejected objections to its plans for a 500 per cent increase to asylum and immigration tribunal fees. The justice select committee was one of the 142 respondents – out of 147 – which said the proposed hike should not go ahead before reviewing the impact of the implementation of employment tribunal fee rise.

At the time, the justice committee also said the rise in employment tribunal fees in July 2013 led to an ‘undisputed and precipitate drop’ of near-70 per cent in the number of cases brought between October 2013 and June 2015.

In justifying its approach, the government said the help with fees remission scheme was available to court users and repeated it was committed to investing more than £700m in modernising the civil and family court system, and £270m for the criminal justice system.

The 2013 rise in employment tribunal fees attracted much criticism and the government is finalising a post-implementation review which it said would be published soon. Similarly, it confirmed a review was underway following the introduction of enhanced fees of money claims in March 2015.

However, the committee’s recommendation to rescind the £550 fee for divorce petition was rejected. The fee came into effect in March and is expected to generate £12m a year. Although it was too soon to draw any firm conclusion, the government said there was no evidence so far that the fee increase had led to a fall in divorce applications.

Fees will also go up for appeals in asylum and immigration cases, with the government intent on achieving full cost levels in the first-tier tribunal and on introducing fees for Upper Tribunal appeals when parliamentary time allows.

Responding to the government’s response, Bob Neill MP, chair of the justice committee, said: ‘It is disappointing that the government response is so negative in respect of the justice committee’s recommendations; perhaps more concerning is that it is almost offensively perfunctory, appearing to have been rushed out at short notice and giving little evidence of attention paid to the committee’s detailed evidence and analysis. This is all the more surprising given that government has had more than four months to produce this reply. I therefore intend to raise this matter and possible further steps with the committee at our next meeting.’

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief of Solicitors Journal

jean-yves.gilg@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @jeanyvesgilg

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Courts & Judiciary

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MoJ access to justice justice select committee