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Court fee hikes as axe descends on MoJ

25 October 2010

Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly has responded to chancellor George Osborne’s demand for a 23 per cent cut in the MoJ’s budget by bringing back court fees for councils in care proceedings and introducing a new set of fees for immigration appeals.

There were protests from the Law Society, the Bar Council and the NSPCC when massive increases in fees for care proceedings, from £150 to over £4,825, were imposed by former justice secretary Jack Straw in 2008.

Four councils, supported by the society and the NSPCC, launched a judicial review. Although it was rejected by the High Court, Straw abolished the fees in March this year (see solicitorsjournal.com, 23 March 2010).

However, in a written statement to the Commons, Djanogly said he believed there was “no justification” for abolition.

“Protecting vulnerable children is paramount and I do not believe that continuing to charge these court fees will place vulnerable children at risk.”

Djanogly said councils had a statutory duty to investigate when they suspected a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm and it would be “unlawful for local authorities to consider financial considerations when deciding whether to do so”.

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said the move went against the government’s promises not to extend their austerity measures to the most vulnerable.

“Setting court fees purely on the basis of cost may leave vulnerable children, particularly in cases of neglect, at greater risk of harm,” he said.

“This is even more serious now than when it was first introduced in 2008. It is local authorities who have to pick up the bill in these cases and they, like so many public sector bodies, are being squeezed by the chancellor.”

Hudson added: “No one wants to see another Baby Peter tragedy, but by maintaining these high fees, neglected and at risk children could be denied the protection of the courts because local authorities cannot afford it.”

Meanwhile, individuals challenging decisions by the UK Border Agency refusing them leave to remain in or to enter the UK will be expected to pay for the appeal under MoJ proposals due for implementation in January 2011.

Djanogly said that as Britain was facing an “exceptionally tough fiscal situation” it was “reasonable to ask non-UK citizens appealing against some categories of immigration and asylum decisions to contribute to the costs of the administration of that appeal, where they are able to”.

The proposal is to charge a fee of about 25 per cent of the full costs of administering the immigration and asylum appeals system, amounting to £125 for oral hearings and £65 for paper hearings, with appeals to the Upper Tribunal costing about £250.

Those qualifying for legal aid, receiving asylum support, in the ‘fast-track’ process, under a deportation order or whose leave has been revoked will not be charged a fee.

In a separate development, Lord Justice Goldring, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales, has strongly criticised MoJ plans to axe 157 magistrates’ and county courts.

Responding to the proposals on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, Goldring LJ found significant factual errors in the consultation, failure to take into account travelling times or the impact on family cases.

In terms of errors, Goldring LJ said the MoJ argued that Abergavenny Magistrates’ Court had not been used since 1999, when in reality the court had recently been refurbished and reopened in July 2010.

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Regulators Conveyancing Local government