The Bar Council has warned that government plans to increase court fees for a second time would unbalance civil justice, giving rich people and big businesses an unfair advantage.
Responding to a Ministry of Justice consultation on proposals that could see fees double in some courts, the Bar Council said that the further increases could price smaller parties out of the justice process.
Richer parties will be in a much stronger bargaining position in any settlement negotiations, as they could settle the case knowing weaker parties could not afford to take the case to court, it warned.
Small businesses chasing late payments from big companies would be particularly affected, the Bar Council said.
Bar chair Alistair MacDonald warned that for one party to have this kind of unfair advantage would go against ‘every principle of justice’.
He added: ‘Further court fee rises will mean that wealthy individuals or businesses immediately have an advantage if they find themselves facing a claim from someone of limited means such as a small business facing cashflow problems, and that advantage will have nothing to do with the merits of their case. The wealthier party is in a stronger position.
‘The poorer party is either priced out of court or makes an attempt to represent themselves, which not only slows the court process down, but leaves them in a weak position against the other party in the court.’
The Bar Council also warned that a proposal to remove the cap on the maximum fees payable for claims could leave many without access to justice.
It gave the example of a family making a legitimate claim against insurers for the value of their home, which could easily exceed £600,000, needing to find at least £30,000 to start proceedings. Fees are currently capped at £10,000.
MacDonald said: ‘Very few individuals or small businesses have tens of thousands of pounds sitting there in the petty-cash box. We opposed those initial court fee increases and we oppose these too.’
He said the government should at least have waited to consider the impact on justice of the original court fee rise in March, and whether this had raised any extra money.
‘By rushing into the proposals for even higher fees, the risk is that an even greater number of worthy claimants will be denied access to justice without any benefit to the Treasury.’