The Ministry of Justice has announced plans to substantially increase court fees. This is subject to a challenge by the Law Society and APIL (and possibly others in the pipeline).
As with any plan to increase fees in whatever field, particularly one so disproportionate, there is a risk that the goal will not be achieved and, worse still, that revenue will in fact decrease as a result.
Will the service levels increase to correspond with the fee increase? In theory, every consumer will have to give thought to what they will receive for their money before spending. In the case of service from the court, there is no evidence of an improved service and therefore no justification, on the face of it, to increase fees. On the contrary in fact – in our local court there is no longer a system whereby court users can attend at the court counters without prior appointment. As a litigant in person, this restriction could make things even more daunting than they already were.
If the service being provided were to improve in some way, then arguably a fee increase is warranted. However, if the level of service is not enhanced, there is no rational reason for the court fees to be increased.
Is there any link between the level of court fees and justice? Following the case of Baby P in 2007, Francis Plowden prepared a comprehensive report (Review of Court Fees in Child Care Proceedings, 15 March 2010) which concluded that court fees could be deterring local authorities from issuing care proceedings and should therefore be abolished. This finding was accepted by the then justice secretary Jack Straw.
While care proceedings are a distinct type of proceedings, and are arguably more important than other case types in that they are life-changing, Plowden’s report demonstrates that there is a link between court fees and justice. The level of the former can determine whether the latter can be obtained. In his report, Plowden also found that, when faced with high court fees, local authorities would consider other, more affordable options, thereby denying access to justice. This report is a startling reminder that court fee increases should be dealt with cautiously and with consideration to all consequences. It is not a process that should be used lightly in order to enhance revenue.
Will consumers derive any benefit? Court fees are normally paid for on the claimant’s behalf. As the claimant is the consumer, they are not likely to complain because it does not directly affect them. Further, once one of these disproportionate issue fees is paid, providing the claim is successful the fee will be recovered from the insurer of the paying party. The insurers will then have to pass on that cost to their consumers – that is, the court users and the rest of society. And so it goes on.
In summary: we are not getting a new/improved service in return for such high fee increases; there is compelling evidence which shows that prohibitive court fees can serve to deprive parties of justice; and court fees have to be paid by insurers in successful cases and therefore the cost is ultimately passed on to the consumer in any event. The only body to derive any benefit from the fee increases would be the MoJ.
For all of the above reasons, I would hope that if judicially reviewed, the court will see through this revenue-generating scheme and have regard to the consequences for consumers.
Guy Platt-Higgins, managing director, Law Costing Ltd, Birkenhead