The biggest problem with tuition fees was arguably introducing the idea of value for money. This correspondent stumbled through three years of university with four hours’ contact time a week, mostly with professors utterly indifferent to teaching and largely concerned with plugging their books.
Once you start charging for such services, students are entitled to ask exactly what bang they’re getting for their buck.
The same applies to our civil courts. Four years ago the government took the decision to introduce the idea of ‘user pays’ and the fees have increased steadily ever since. Anathema to the health service, for the courts it was very different: ministers said those using public facilities should be prepared to pay for them.
We can argue the principle, but what cannot be disputed now is the outcome: the government is making money out of us.
This week HM Courts and Tribunals Service confirmed it received £602m in civil fees and £186m in family court fees in 2016/17. In total, casting some doubt on the idea of a generous remission scheme, court users were handed back £65m. At the same time, HMCTS has spent £622m on our courts, which leaves the government £102m in the black.
It’s worth pointing out the tribunal service is still a drain on resources, costing the taxpayer roughly £162m (incidentally, the meagre £11.7m taken in from employment tribunal fees would hardly seem to justify the inevitable injustice these fees cause).
But the point stands that ministers are now reaping the rewards of civil justice fees and court users are entitled to ask exactly where that money is going. ‘User pays’ suggests those users see a return on their investment. They certainly don’t expect to see their money disappearing into a Treasury black hole.
Like a student demanding more contact time, court fees are now a new burden of expectancy on justice ministers. The court process must be more efficient, listings should be handled better, divorces should (in theory) be quicker. Would it be too much to ask to get that coffee machine fixed in the waiting room?
Then there is the legal aid elephant in the room. The government is making money from civil justice: at what point can we argue for some of that cash to be diverted to ensuring litigants are adequately represented?
This government turned justice into a commodity. Like any paying customers, we can now insist on a silver service. The kind that £102m should buy you.