Criminal court charges are likely to waste taxpayers’ money on chasing outstanding debts from people unable to pay, the Law Society has said.
Responding to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into courts and tribunal fees and charges, the Society said while the government wants to save money through closing courts and further increasing civil court fees, it is also planning on spending large sums on recouping debts.
It said it understands the government is considering awarding a contract worth nearly £700m to a private company to recover unpaid court charges.
‘It would be better for the government not to spend £700m chasing money from people who simply do not have the money to pay and instead invest in local courts that can more readily deliver local justice and lower fees so that people can actually afford to enforce their rights and access to justice.’
The Society said in some cases the criminal court charge is higher than the actual penalty imposed by the court, leaving it out of proportion with the seriousness of the offence.
The knock-on effect of any default on the payment will continue to hound a defendant long after the original sentence is served, it said.
The Law Society’s response also echoed concerns raised by the City of London Law Society that civil court fees damage the reputation of legal services in England and Wales.
Members told the Law Society that many clients see the fees as ‘price gouging’, which could drive business to other jurisdictions. This would reduce the amount of fee revenue for the government leaving it no better off.
When the government consulted on court fees it said reform was needed to protect justice, but the Society said that the fees have the opposite effect.
It added: ‘It is wrong in principle for the courts and tribunals to be used as a profit centre for the government as they perform a vital social function and should not be treated as a commercial activity; higher fees will discourage people from bringing legitimate cases.’
This reduces access to justice and disproportionately effect those on low incomes or with certain disabilities, the Society warned.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘The fees render ordinary people’s legal rights meaningless because they simply cannot afford to enforce them.
‘The criminal court charge is likely to waste taxpayers’ money by pursuing payment from people who are unlikely to ever have the means to pay.’