The Ministry of Justice has slipped out confirmation that a 34% hike in divorce fees will take effect next Monday, despite strong opposition from family lawyers.
Last summer the MoJ consulted on a round of court fee rises, including a proposed rise in divorce fees from £410 to £550.
But family lawyers only learnt that the fee increase would be implemented next week from emails sent out by divorce units, which referenced the increase in fees just a few days before they are due to come into effect.
A spokesman for the MoJ told the Gazette that both houses in parliament have now approved the fees. He said that the increase would come into effect across all divorce units on 21 March.
Marilyn Stowe (pictured), a senior partner at Stowe Family Law, criticised the move.
She told the Gazette: ‘The petition fee is already exorbitant and unjustified given the actual cost of a divorce is circa £270. It is wrong to overcharge those who have no choice simply because they are a captive audience, not least when this relates to the justice system.’
But she added that it was equally wrong to allow litigants full use of a judge and a courtroom for long periods, simply by paying a court fee.
She said: ‘I have concerns that those who run the justice system have no obvious experience of running a healthy business and no clear aim of making the justice system a success, given there is a continuing indisputable demand for courts services.
‘It all needs to be fully reviewed and costed rather than simply making wild adjustments and providing a two-tier system online in the hope the problem will go away.’
Jo Edwards, chair of family law organisation Resolution, said: ‘The stealthy implementation of the hike in divorce fees, from £410 to £550 (after an increase only two years ago) is scandalous and not backed up by proper impact assessment.
‘As a result of the steep increase, many people currently in the process of separating will have received incorrect information as to the charge for lodging a divorce petition and, in reality, won’t have time to get their petition in before the fee increase takes effect.’
She added that the government should have waited until the House of Commons justice select committee published their findings into their inquiry on court fees.
‘Instead, the way in which this has been gone about, with no formal consultation or announcement, demonstrates a shocking lack of transparency from government. The manner in which they’re implementing this increase, by calling courts today and instructing them to charge more from Monday, is not how a responsible government department should act.’
In December last year Edwards told MPs at a House of Commons justice committee hearing on court fees that the increase would constitute a ‘tax on divorce’.
She pointed out that couples wanting a divorce, unlike other court users, would have no option over paying the fees.
A spokesperson at the MoJ said: 'Fees are never popular, but they are necessary if we are to reduce the burden of the courts and tribunals on the taxpayer. We have sought to protect the vulnerable at every stage. That is why we have a remission scheme to protect and help those who cannot afford to pay. These fee increases have not been brought forward; they are being introduced on schedule.'