Revelations of Government plans for daily court 'rental' fees are fuelling fears of reduced access to justice.
A fee of u500 per day is anticipated for the High Court and u200 per day for the County Court. A Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) spokesman says the fees, which "only represent one third of the court's running costs," may come in by the end of the year.
Anne Grosskurth, Legal Action Group policy officer, is "shocked" by the fees. "This will definitely dissuade people from using the courts. They are grossly unfair," she says.
She adds that it is "irrational and premature" that the fees are planned when reviews of the legal system have yet to appear.
A National Consumer Council spokesman says: "We fear these regressive fees are just trying to prop up a system near collapse.
"Fear of costs is one of the biggest barriers to justice."
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group says the fees could effect the Legal Aid Board's budget, although an LAB lawyer says this will be minimal.
Andrew Lockley, director of the Law Society's Legal Practice Directorate, says he hopes the fees would take into account ability to pay.
Paul Boateng MP, Labour's legal spokesman, who revealed the new fees and hikes in other court costs, says: "The justice system is in crisis and the consumer is bearing the brunt."
Labour-acquired figures show huge shortfalls in LCD income from civil business fees. Fees cover only 65 per cent of the LCD's overall costs this year, compared to 80 per cent in 1991/92, says Boateng.
Labour says the courts are failing to live up to the Government's Charter. Since it was introduced in January 1993, there have been 9,890 complaints by the public in the County Courts alone, with u603,000 paid out in compensation.
Lockley says: "We believe these figures are only the tip of the iceberg and exclude matters such as overloading of listings by judges. It's time to give renewed publicity to the compensation scheme."