Overwhelming opposition to a hike in fees for immigration cases has been ignored, with the government announcing that it will go ahead with its proposed package of hefty increases.
The Law Society has responded by urging MPs to reject the 'punitive' rises, which it described as a 'huge setback' for justice. Chancery Lane says the Ministry of Justice should instead consider using profits from visa applications to fund the tribunal.
A response paper published by the Ministry of Justice states that only five out of 142 respondents agreed with plans to increase fees in the first-tier tribunal.
Fees in the first-tier tribunal will rise six-fold, from £80 to £490 for an application for a decision on the papers, and from £140 to £800 for an application for an oral hearing.
A new fee of £455 will be introduced for an application to the first-tier tribunal for permission to appeal to the upper tribunal.
In the upper tribunal, an application for permission to appeal, where permission had been refused by the first-tier tribunal, will cost £350, while a £510 fee will be imposed for an appeal hearing where permission is granted.
The fees are expected to raise £34m a year.
The ministry’s response paper states that those who objected thought the large fee increases would deny access to justice for vulnerable people wishing to challenge a Home Office decision.
Some argued that the high cost of appealing a decision would result in fewer appellants seeking professional legal advice, thereby reducing their prospects of success, and that it would be unfair to restrict people’s ability to challenge Home Office decisions which risks reducing state accountability.
Some were particularly concerned about the impact on those challenging asylum decisions, stating that they were a particularly vulnerable group.
Respondents who agreed with the proposals said ’it was right that those who used the tribunal should cover the full cost of the services that they were using’, the paper states.
The fee increases would also discourage appellants from bringing unmeritorious claims to the tribunal.
Only 10 out of 116 respondents agreed with the ministry’s proposal to introduce fees at full cost recovery levels in the upper tribunal.
Those who objected argued that a case goes to the upper tribunal only when a party believes that the first-tier tribunal has made an error in law, and it would not be right for either party to pay a fee in this instance.
Those who agreed with the proposal said it was right that those who used the upper tribunal should cover the cost of the service.
The ministry’s proposal to introduce fees for applications for permission to appeal in both the first-tier tribunal and upper tribunal attracted 119 responses. Only eight respondents agreed; 111 disagreed.
Today’s paper states that the ministry does not charge fees for appeals in the upper tribunal, which cost an estimated £11m in 2015/16. In the same year, it recovered £7m in fees from the first-tier tribunal, which cost around £75m to run.
The document states that the government does not believe it is reasonable to expect the taxpayer to subsidise access to the tribunal.
‘It is right, as a matter of principle, that those who use the immigration tribunals and are subject to a fee should pay the cost of the service they receive. For this reason it is our intention to proceed, as per our consultation, with the implementation of the higher appeal fees in the first-tier tribunal and the introduction of new fees for appeals in the upper tribunal and for permission to appeal applications,’ the response states.
However, the ministry said there was ‘some force’ in some of arguments made by respondents around providing additional protection for those in particularly vulnerable positions. As a result, fee waivers and the exemptions policy will be adjusted.
The Law Society has urged MPs parliament to throw out the rises.
President Robert Bourns commented: 'The decision to proceed with these punitive increases - despite all the warnings about how they will hamper access to justice - is a huge setback for justice in the UK.
'Worse still, this will disproportionately affect groups already vulnerable to discrimination. Immigration and asylum tribunal fee increases on this scale are unaffordable to most and thus deny people access to justice, to challenge the lawfulness of decisions taken by an executive function about their immigration and asylum status. This questions the rule of law in this country.
'We believe that the proposed increases will greatly strengthen the hand of the state against already vulnerable and fearful people. Additionally, the move could breach an individual's rights to family life and a fair trial under the Human Rights Act.'
The Society argues that the principle of affordable justice for all should prevail over the government's full costs recovery model, particularly in the area of appeals against decisions of the state.
Rather than introducing measures that will 'hit the vulnerable the hardest', it said the MoJ should consider seeking to balance its books by using the profits of up to 440% generated by visa applications to fund the tribunal.