Deep divisions between the government and judiciary over court fee increases were today laid bare through a rare barrage of public criticism.
Master of the rolls Lord Dyson (pictured) appeared before the justice committee of the House of Commons and immediately made clear his concern over the reasoning behind and impact of the rises.
Joined by his colleagues Sir James Munby and Sir Ernest Ryder, Dyson said ‘ordinary people’ who fall out of the safety net of fee remissions are being deterred from taking their cases to court.
He added that small and medium-sized businesses - ‘the sort this government says time and time again they want to encourage’ - are being put off seeking justice.
He said the judiciary warned ministers of the ‘real dangers’ of both implementing and increasing civil court fees, and noted the research in advance of reforms was ‘hopeless’ and amounted to little more than 31 phone calls to interested parties.
‘There was a great big gap in the department finances, which had to be plugged,’ he said. ‘I get the sense it was almost a desperate way of carrying on.’
Dyson was asked if there is anything in the government’s argument which stands up to scrutiny, to which he replied: ‘That is a very difficult question and I am not sure how to answer it.’
He said that the Ministry of Justice had ‘made an assumption’ that demand would not be affected by the increases on a ‘very limited evidential base’, adding that ‘I was extremely sceptical’.
Questioned whether the government’s suggestion that insurance and lawyers paying fees up-front would act as a safeguard, he said: ‘They say that, but what is the research upon which that is based? I have not seen any.’
Munby, president of the Family Division, said there had been an increase in litigants in person but that ‘shamefully little’ had been done to help them understand the court process, with information provided to them ‘woefully inadequate’. He added that the court had attempted to make the court proceedings more accessible but often lawyers ‘don’t understand’ the kind of language used by the person in the street.
Munby said incremental increases in court fees for divorce amounted to ‘another poll tax on wheels’ and were disproportionately affecting women.
Asked about the chances of an online court being set up to bring costs down, he added: ‘I am disappointed by where we’ve got to after many months of work.’
Ryder, who said the government should seek to explain the 70% fall in employment tribunal cases after fees were introduced, expressed ‘reservations’ as to the specialist capacity within the MoJ to deliver services through the digitisation programme.
The government says its measures have increased the use of mediation and have not impeded access to justice.
During justice questions today, justice minister Shailesh Vara said: ‘We’re ensuring quicker and fairer access to justice which reflects the way people use it.’