There are increasing fears in the legal sector surrounding rising court fees and costs. Such rises are seen as detrimental to justice, as it reduces access to justice. Recent years have seen such measures criticised by many in the legal sector. The matter recently came into the spotlight recently, as rising court fees were again condemned – this time, by MPs themselves.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) departmental budget was not ring fenced like some key government departments. Some court and related fees have risen in recent years – and will only rise further. This comes not only as no surprise, but at a time when many courts and tribunals are set to close.
This means that the average citizen had had increasingly less access to justice, in what will be an ever increasing trend. The cuts and closures gave been roundly criticised in all circles, from judges, legal reporters, civil rights activists, lawyers themselves and other concerned parties. Now a Parliamentary committee has been the latest in condemning such enforced cuts.
The MoJ had long defended the raises in fees and the court closures. Repeatedly, the Ministry has cited desires to “streamline” the justice system, encourage people to arbitration or out of court settlements, and the regrettable need for cutbacks in an era if austerity. Further, by reducing the number of cases brought to courts and tribunals with the “enhanced” fees, the argument is that more people in the judicial system will be able to get their case before a judge or magistrate. As such, the rising fees only serve, ironically, to increase access to justice at a time when some cases (such as in the Family Division) can wait up to a year before coming to court.
Some (but not all) of the key fee changes are that court fees for financial claims for sums in excess of £300,000 rose last year from £1,920 to £10,000. Plans to double that level to £20,000 have (temporarily) been halted. The cost if getting a contested divorce also rose, from £410 to £550. An uncontested divorce remains comparatively cheap at a mere £270. Employment Tribunals saw fees of up to £1,200 introduced in 2013. This led to employment hearings falling by 70%.
Amidst an ongoing refugee and asylum crisis, with asylum becoming ever more sensitive politically and socially, of mist controversy are MoJ plans to increase immigration and asylum tribunal fees by a massive 600%. Under the proposals, applications for decisions on papers will rise to £490 from £80, with similar fees for a full oral hearing being £800, up from £140.
A Justice Select Committee recently examined these and other related issues. Chaired by former barrister Bob Neill MP (Con- Bromley & Chislehurst), the Committee was most scathing in its assessment of the fee increases, and has called upon the Ministry to rescind some of the fees.
Whilst acknowledging the financial difficulties faced by a non – ring fenced governmental department at a time of fiscal austerity, the Committee is unhappy with how those cuts have to all intents and purpose been passed onto citizens seeking justice. Access to justice for all, according to the Justice Select Committee, must prevail over “cost recovery,” it stated in its report, as it dismissed “superficial” government excuses for a failure to provide adequate evidence to justify such successive steep rises.
The report, which has yet to be published, makes painful reading for the government. For example, the MPs state that the latest increase in divorce fees are “approximately double the cost to the courts of providing the service, is unjustified… It cannot be right that a person bringing a divorce petition, in most cases a woman, is subject to what has been characterised in evidence to us as effectively a divorce tax. We recommend that the increase in the divorce petition fee to £550 be rescinded.”
Turning to Employment Tribunals, the MPs describe Justice Minister Shailesh Vara’s (Con – North West Cambridgeshire) “heavy reliance on the figure of 83,000 cases dealt with at Acas early conciliation to support his contention that access to justice has not been adversely affected by employment tribunal fees [as], even on the most favourable construction, superficial… It is difficult to see how a Minister can urge his officials to progress a review which they apparently submitted to him four months or more previously.”
The MPs are equally scathing if the rise in immigration fees, stating that “there is a danger that they will deny vulnerable people the means to challenge the lawfulness of decisions taken by the state about their … status” if the fee rise goes ahead.
The Select Committee MPs, however, do not object to the fees in principle, since “some degree of financial risk is an important discipline for those considering legal action.” It is overly high court fees, which act as a barrier to those seeking justice, that concerns them. In some instances, the overly high fees might be considered as a “tax” on justice – which is absolutely against the key democratic principle that justice should be available for all citizens, regardless of wealth or status.
The Justice Select Committee (predominantly consisting of Conservative MPs) is but the latest voice to to question or condemn the changes in the legal sector in recent years. Many of those changes, such as legal aid cuts, court closures, and the fees, have ultimately reduced access to justice. It is necessary for citizens to have the knowledge that they can seek justice at at time if needs be, and take their grievance to court. All and every step should be made to to make that so; rising court fees has the opposite effect, and is contrary to democratic and legal principles.
Quoting again from the Justice Select Committee report, “the introduction of fees set at a level to recover or exceed the full cost of operation of the court requires particular care and strong justification. Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter objective must prevail.”