The Ministry of Justice has reversed plans for six-fold increases in some fees for asylum and immigration cases, it told parliament today. The announcement was warmly welcomed by the Law Society.
In a written ministerial statement, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald said the department had listened to the representations it received on the current fee levels and has ‘decided to take stock and review the immigration and asylum fees’.
The ministry’s consultation response document stated that only five respondents out of 147 agreed with the fee increases. Nonetheless in September the ministry announced that it was proceeding with hefty increases and began charging up to £800 for an oral hearing in the first-tier tribunal.
However, from today, applicants will be charged fees at previous levels, Heald said. In cases where the new fees have been paid, the ministry will reimburse the difference between the new and previous fee. An extended system of fee exemptions will continue, such as for children in local authority care and for holders of a Home Office destitution waiver.
The ministry will bring forward secondary legislation to formalise its position ‘as soon as possible’, the statement said. In the meantime, the change will come into force through the use of the lord chancellor’s discretionary power to remit or reduce fees.
Fees were introduced in the first-tier tribunal in 2011. These are £80 for an application on paper and £140 for an oral hearing - ‘well below’ full-cost recovery levels, Heald said.
Earlier this year the ministry consulted on raising the fees to a level to recover the full cost of proceedings. It also consulted on introducing fees for appeals in the immigration and asylum chamber of the upper tribunal, and for permission to appeal applications in the first-tier and upper tribunals.
Heald stressed that the government still believes that those who use courts and tribunals should pay more, where they can realistically afford to do so, to ensure the justice system is properly funded to protect access to justice, and relieve the burden on the taxpayer.
In 2015/16, the net cost of the courts and tribunals service to taxpayers was £1.2bn, which Heald said was ‘unsustainably high’.
The role of upper tribunal fees will form part of the ministry’s review of tribunal fees. A consultation on new plans for tribunal fees, including in the immigration and asylum chambers of the first-tier and upper tribunals, will be published ‘in due course’.
Law Society welcomed the announcement. Chief executive Catherine Dixon said: 'We are delighted that government has listened to our concerns. We are also pleased that those who paid the increased fee are to be reimbursed. The Law Society vigorously opposed the fee increases because equal access to justice is more important than income generation when it comes to setting court and tribunal fees. We note the government is now embarking on a wider review of tribunal fees which we welcome and we will be monitoring that process carefully.'
Bob Neill, chair of the Commons justice committee, echoed the welcome. 'We concluded in our recent report that the cost-recovery aim of the proposed six-fold increases would not be realistic; that there was a danger that the increases would deny vulnerable people the means to challenge the lawfulness of decisions taken by the state; and that it was unwise for the government to have brought forward these proposals before its review of the impact of employment tribunal fees has been published. It is very good to see the government prepared to listen and take action as a result.'
Bar Council chair Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC said the ministry's announcement was encouraging. However, she said the Bar Council 'remains concerned about the remaining enhanced and increased court fees'.