Lords debate court fees hike

The Government is expected to come under pressure to reconsider the recent hike in civil court fees this week, during a House of Lords debate on the issue.

As The Lawyer went to press, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, was due to reply to the Lords about the increases during the full debate to be held on Monday evening.

The issue was raised by the former Law Lord, Lord Ackner, who is asking the Government what action it is taking to protect the constitutional right of access to court.

The increases in civil court fees in the High Court, county courts and the Family Division were introduced in January as part of the Government's plans to make the courts totally self-financing.

But Ackner wants to see the increases cancelled and the policy of making the courts completely self-financing scrapped.

His attack will reinforce criticism voiced by the vice-chancellor, Sir Richard Scott, who has consistently lambasted the policy of making the courts self-financing. Speaking on Channel 5's UK Law last Sunday, he said hundreds of thousands of people were denied access to justice because they could not afford it.

Ackner said: “My question raises two points. Firstly it raises a fundamental constitutional point of whether the courts should be self-financing. This has not been debated or put to Parliament.

“Secondly, the discretion that is given to relieve litigants of costs is terribly narrow. They have to show undue hardship arising out of exceptional circumstances.”

Ackner wants the increases to be cancelled, the philosophy of totally self-financing courts to be reversed and the discretion to waive fees to be exercised by the courts on a less restrictive test of whether hardship will be suffered.

Vicki Chapman, policy officer at the Legal Action Group, which has been pressing Parliament to look at the issue, welcomed the debate as an important step forward.