Government plans to means-test waivers for civil court or tribunal fees could impact the most deprived and vulnerable sections of society, the Civil Justice Council has warned.
The advisory group of judges, academics and lawyers, chaired by the master of the rolls (pictured), said there were ‘many aspects’ of the Ministry of Justice proposals that caused concern.
Ministers want to include a test to identify low earners with substantial savings that would enable them to pay some or all of the fees. The MoJ also proposes a sliding scale of contributions to fees according to monthly incomes.
Current fee remissions are automatic for those on state benefits and offered in full for those whose income is less than stated thresholds.
Under government plans, from October there will be one single remission system, with lower thresholds to qualify.
In its response to the government consultation, which closed last week, the CJC said it was aware of abuses of the system but there was ‘a baby very much in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater in terms of people being able to pursue a case properly’.
The CJC accepted that cuts are needed in the wider economic context, but said that same context would also mean people with limited means will see court fees as a ‘significant barrier’ to making claims.
‘A brief analysis of the proposals shows that income eligibility thresholds for couples are being significantly reduced,’ said the CJC response.
‘The suggestion that these proposals "prevent fee remissions being paid to wealthy individuals" belies the impact of the proposals on large numbers of individuals who are anything but wealthy.’
The CJC said there were reservations about plans to make court users provide a ‘statement of truth’, which could lead to challenge on the validity of the statement. In family disputes, where the issue at stake is for shared household capital, the statement will also create problems, the CJC argued.
Overall, it was felt the proposed reforms appear to be ‘too severe’ and would diminish access to justice for significant numbers of low-income families.
The MoJ is under pressure to cut costs and is looking to save around £4m in remissions through the reforms.
The cost of running civil courts in 2011/12 was around £713m, of which two-thirds was funded through fees. In that year around 171,000 fee remissions were granted at a total value of £27.8m.
At the time the consultation was started, justice minister Helen Grant said: ‘We need a better and more targeted system of court fee remissions so that those who can afford to pay towards their civil or tribunal case do so.
‘I want to ensure that the taxpayer contribution towards fee remissions is targeted towards those who need it most.’