Agency launched amid fees furore

Widespread concern among UK legal and consumer groups has greeted the Government's intention to make the public pay for the full cost of using the civil courts.

They are convinced that “full cost recovery”, with expected daily court fees of u200- u500, will shut out thousands of people from using the civil justice system.

The intention to make the public pay was reiterated at the launch of the new Court Service Agency and the Scottish Court Service agency last week.

The Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay said at the event: “I am not satisfied that people are being deflected already from the courts by court fees.”

However, results from a National Consumer Council (NCC) survey in 1988 – prior to recent court fee increases – showed that 55 per cent of people with a strong civil claim declined to take action primarily because of cost.

An NCC spokesman says: “Cost is a clear barrier to justice. We know this, and full cost recovery is just adding to that barrier. To say it is not is clearly wrong.”

The Court Service Agency will aim to recoup around u20 million in the next year to bring its recovery rate up to 75 per cent of costs, said Michael Huebner, the court service head and the agency's first chief executive.

Court Service Agency figures indicated it will aim even higher the following year, hoping to recoup around u40-50 million, Huebner said.

Lord Williams of Mostyn, Labour peer and ex-Bar Council chairman says: “It's going to be catastrophic to hundreds of thousands of people who are not legally aided. It's just absurd.”

The Law Society's concern is that “economy will be the real future agenda” for the court agency and that Treasury needs may take priority over access to justice.

Legal Action Group director Roger Smith says it is “philosophically wrong” to charge the full cost to litigants because the courts' value extends beyond trying individual cases to include “setting precedents and standards for society as a whole”.

The Law Society of Scotland is continuing to lobby against full cost recovery, which was imposed earlier there.

Deputy secretary Bruce Richie says: “We say it is completely contradictory to the fundamental principle of the State to provide means for citizens to resolve disputes.”

Lord Chancellor's Department figures show a big slide in recent cost recovery, with a fee income shortfall growing from u53.4 million in 1993-94 to u71 million in 1994-95.

This has led to the Government's need to balance its books as one of the two major challenges for the courts agency in the next three years, according to its published corporate and business plans.