Proposed court fee reforms – a further bar to justice?
Since the coalition Government came to power in May 2010 it has made a systematic attack on the civil legal system in England and Wales. From the removal of legal aid from many areas of civil law to the wide ranging effects of the Jackson reforms, the Government has changed the legal landscape. The results of these changes are already being felt by the poorest in society who cannot afford to pay for legal advice and assistance. This is shown clearly by the rise in litigants in person. All of this is justified on the basis that we are in times of austerity and the money to repay the deficit has to come from somewhere.
Set against this backdrop the Government announced its proposals for further reforms to court fees on 16 January. I must admit I had no idea they were intending to reform them again especially after they were only reformed in April 2014 with court fees rising by up to 20% across the board.
The Government now wants to completely change the system for the calculation of court fees. Unsurprisingly their proposals are to raise them further. They propose to increase court fees to 5% of the value of the proceedings. The Ministry of Justice initially stated that this would only be for money claims with a set value but the consultation seems to suggest the increase will now also be applied to unspecified claims.
What this means is that a claim worth £100,000 will have an issue fee of £5,000 an increase of £4,090 for the current issue fee. Apparently we will have some respite though, the maximum issue fee for a claim worth over £200,000 will be capped at £10,000, a staggering increase of £8,685.
There are also other reforms proposed such as increase to general application fees. The fees for an application made by consent will rise from £50 to £100 and the fee for an application which is contested is rising from £155 to £255.
The Government’s justification for these increases is an estimated saving of £120 million but without trying to sound melodramatic what cost will there be to justice? Solicitors considering acting for clients on conditional fee agreements will think twice as to whether they will take the case on as in most cases they will be expected to fund these increased fees. Litigants in person will be prevented from being their cases unless they are either very wealthy or so impecunious as to qualify for a fee exemption. Whilst the Government denies this restricts access to justice, I cannot see how that is realistic or true.
Whilst I understand that we are in times of austerity, this should not give the Government a free reign to destroy our civil legal system and ultimately make it a two tier system, with justice for the wealthy and no justice for the rest.