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Top UK judges denounce increase in court fees

29th Jan 2016

Increases in court fees which have been introduced to plug a £100m hole in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) budget were based on “hopeless” evidence, according to the most senior civil judge in England and Wales. Three of the most senior civil judges have warned of the danger of raising tribunal and court fees too high.

Giving evidence to the justice select committee, the Master of the Rolls, John Dyson, highlighted the financial problems of the department under which the government is trying to make the justice system self-financing.

“Enhanced fees” are designed to make a profit, charging claimants more than the administrative cost of the service.

Lord Dyson stated that “The users of the civil courts are subsidising the family courts and criminal courts.”

He went on to say that “it’s wrong in principle … but it’s a policy matter as to whether parliament should go down that route. It is, I’m afraid, why the risk of denying access to justice for a lot of people is so intense in these proposals.”

Fee increases “won’t deter rich people but small businesses. With the type of people this government said it wanted to encourage because they will be the engine for [economic] growth, many of them are most at risk,” he continued. “We have warned of the real dangers and we also warned that the research carried out by the government before it embarked on this course of action was lamentable.”

Only 31 calls were made to ask what impact it would have, mainly to wealthier court users who could afford the increase in fees, he said.

“[The MoJ] made assumptions that demand would not be affected by these changes and they based that assumption on a very, very limited evidential base … I’m extremely sceptical about that assumption.”

Dyson acknowledged that £700m had been made available for court modernisation, but noted that The government’s track record on IT projects is “not exactly shining.”

Sir James Munby, the judge in charge of the family courts, said the administrative cost of a divorce was around £200 but the MoJ considered charging £750. Eventually the price was fixed at £550.

“Can we continue putting fees up until it becomes another poll tax on wheels?” Munby asked. “Those who want to divorce will probably still do so through gritted teeth but it doesn’t mean you can keep on putting up the fees.”

Sir Ernest Ryder, who is in charge of employment and immigration tribunals, said increases in fees for employment tribunals had resulted in a 70% fall in the number of claims being brought over a single year.

“That’s an extraordinary position that demands an explanation,” he told MPs.

There was no evidence, as some had argued, that a rise in fees had deterred supposedly spurious claims, he said.