The government must not be too dismissive in its responses to consultations, even when it presses ahead with controversial changes.
This week the government opened a consultation on a further round of court and tribunal fees.
In the same Ministry of Justice document, it responded to a January consultation on enhanced fees for divorce proceedings, possession claims and general applications in civil proceedings.
Needless to say, the document has provoked strong reaction from the legal profession; mostly anger from what I have seen. Many took the time to respond to the government with their thoughts on raising fees. But the government has shown it is not afraid to go against a majority line of thought in the legal profession.
For instance, 92% of respondents to the January consultation were against raising the fee for a possession claim by £75. How does the government respond? It’s going to raise the fee for a possession claim by £75.
Likewise, 96% of respondents did not want the fee for a general application in civil proceedings to be increased. What does the government decide? It will increase the fee for uncontested and contested general applications in civil proceedings by £50 and £100 respectively.
A ‘large’ majority of respondents opposed plans to increase the fee for an application for a divorce from £410 to £750. To the government’s credit, it acknowledges that an 80% increase is too much, but still decides to increase it (albeit to £550).
Credit to courts minister Shailesh Vara, who acknowledged that court fee rises would not be popular.
What struck me about this document is that, only a day earlier, the government dismissed a number of concerns raised by the House of Lords with regards to legal aid and legal advice in extradition cases.
Some of its responses began ‘it does not agree that…’ or ‘it rejects any assertion that… ’.
Reading the Courts and Tribunals Fees document the following day, the language felt a little familiar with sentences such as the government ‘does not accept that…’ or ‘does not anticipate that…’.
Thousands of legal aid solicitors across the country are currently showing what happens when they feel the government has too easily dismissed their concerns. (Practitioner groups met with the justice secretary on 28 May about concerns over legal aid reforms. Days later the MoJ announced it was pressing ahead with those reforms.)
In a letter to justice committee chair Robert Neill, Vara said the MoJ had to look to those who use the courts system ‘to contribute more where they can afford to do so’ because there was ‘only so much that can be delivered through efficiency measures alone’.
The government will often have to make tough decisions.
But it needs to at least show a willingness to go back to the drawing board when the majority of those who know the justice system far better than it does give a resounding ‘no’ to its plans. And if it still can’t find an alternative solution, the government should at least try to not sound too dismissive in its responses.
Monidipa Fouzder is a Gazette reporter