Vulnerable will be hit hardest by new divorce tax
Divorce applicants with a low income could be refused their legal right to separation, writes Paul Hunt
With divorce fees now at an all-time high, it is necessary to question whether this substantial - and rather sudden - financial hike could cause a reduction in the number of divorce cases proceeding through our legal system.
To begin the challenging process of divorce, applicants must now pay a £550 court fee, which amounts to a 34 per cent increase. This has been costed in accordance with new rules by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), a decision which has not been well received by the family law community.
The criticism stems not only from a succession of doubts questioning whether there is a tangible need for the excessive rise, but also from the manner in which the new rules were revealed. Family lawyers only learnt of the increase from emails sent by divorce units, which referenced the increase just days before they took effect.
This demonstrates an appalling lack of communication from the MoJ and, as a result of the swift increase, clients in the process of separating will have received incorrect fee structures, causing additional confusion for them at what is already a troubling time. It is now down to solicitors to go directly back to clients entering the difficult process to notify them of the increase in cost.
On average the MoJ estimates that if a divorce is not contested, the administrative process of marital separation costs around £270; however, the new fee is almost double that cost, meaning the MoJ is making a profit of more than 100 per cent, which, in effect, is levying a 'divorce tax'.
The hike, which is the second of its kind in the last three years, could act as a disincentive for legal separation, especially as divorce often comes during a time of financial hardship. This could be particularly worrying for certain groups of vulnerable clients, such as victims of domestic abuse. There are many reasons why marriages come to an end, but the separation of a family is always a difficult time for those involved, which is why the legal system should be protecting and supporting these people rather than adding to their anguish.
It is my concern that applicants with low incomes will feel they are being denied their legal right to separation and feel they have to continue living in a difficult situation as a direct result of financial restraints.
It is imperative clients do not feel restricted by the rise in fees and that they are made aware of other financial options available to them when looking for support with costs. Legal representatives can assist by reviewing the help with fees scheme, a system that assists with court fees dependent on the client's income. Clients should be made aware that the system has undergone a wealth of reform and puts a lot less strain on clients since the dated free remission scheme, which required extensive documentation and took a lengthy amount of time
to ensue. SJ
Paul Hunt is a family law solicitor at Kirwans