Profession attacks hike in court fees

Lawyers and advice agencies are outraged at the lack of consultation over new court fees which come into force this week, saying they are “unjustifiably large” and will limit access to justice.

The new Supreme Court, Family and County Court fees come into force tomorrow after limited consultation and no public debate. The speed at which the Lord Chancellor's Department has acted has taken many by surprise.

Among the changes causing most concern are increased fees for court issue of up to £500, divorce petition fees rising from £80 to £150, the doubling of the fee for wardship proceedings to £100, increased taxation fees and several new charges affecting debtors. Remission and exemption will be abolished except for people on income support in small claims and undefended divorces.

The fees are expected to bring in an extra £50m a year and recover nearly 100 per cent of court costs from users.

Sir Richard Scott, vice-chancellor of the Supreme court, said he found this policy unacceptable. “To say that fees must be at a level that makes the courts self-financing is a policy I find objectionable. Part of the function of civilised courts is that a civil justice system should be provided. The civil justice system is one of the bulwarks of the state in support of law and order.”

Diane Burleigh, head of court business at the Law Society, said the changes meant some people would not be able to afford to use the civil justice system. Vicki Chapman, policy officer at the Legal Action Group, said it was “outraged by the dramatic increases and very concerned about the impact of changes to exemption and remission”.

Roger Goodier, secretary of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, said some increases were “preposterous” and “seem to fly in the face of Lord Woolf's aims to reduce the cost of litigation and make justice accessible to all”.

Both the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux (Nacab) and the National Consumer Council are concerned about the changes. An article due to appear in the February edition of Nacab's Money Advice magazine states: “A cynic may be inclined to feel that the lack of public consultation and last-minute drafting of the regulation has all the hallmarks of an attempt to cover up what was likely to be an unpopular cash-making exercise.”

It is understood many district judges are appalled by the introduction of new fees, saying that they will lead to a denial of justice, but the Association of District Judges refused to comment.

An LCD spokeswoman said fee exemptions would ensure access to justice was not reduced. She pointed out that legally-aided litigants have their court fees paid by the fund.