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Court fees increase damaging access to justice, say MPs

Lawyers welcome justice committee finding that access to justice must prevail over full cost recovery

20 June 2016

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Disproportionate court fees should be overhauled to ensure access to justice for employees, MPs have declared.

The rise in employment tribunal fees in July 2013 led to an 'undisputed and precipitate drop' of near-70 per cent in the number of cases brought between October 2013 and June 2015, a report from the justice committee has found.

The committee said the fees charged for bringing cases to employment tribunals should be 'substantially reduced' among other major changes to restore an acceptable level of access to the tribunals system.

The government was also criticised for not publishing its post-implementation review of the fees, due to be released at the end of 2015.

While the committee stated that it did not object the principle of charging fees, it argued that access to justice must prevail over 'costs recovery'.

Chairman of the Bar, Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC, said the report was further evidence that court fees were acting as a deterrent to those seeking justice.

'While we must acknowledge the budget pressures the Ministry of Justice is facing, it does not mean a "shot in the dark" approach to imposing court and tribunal fees.

'The committee found what we and others (including the judiciary), had been saying all along: the [MoJ's] evidence base for the charges was flimsy, and insufficient time was allowed to assess the impact of other, concurrent changes in the civil justice system.

'The reality is that employees, small businesses and others who may have a legitimate claim are being denied the chance to pursue it because of fees which they cannot afford.'

Stephen Cavalier, chief executive at Thompsons Solicitors, which gave evidence to MPs, said the findings were a 'damning indictment of the government's shameful approach to and poorly thought out imposition of fees'.

'As we have said from the outset, fees in employment tribunals have denied access to justice to thousands of individuals who have been mistreated at work. The government's imposition of fees has been exposed as superficial and lacking in evidence,' he added.

'The current fee system should be scrapped immediately and the government must consult on a system which meets the intended objective of preserving access to justice and meets the committee's statement of fundamental principle.'

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, welcomed the report and urged the government to consider how to make employment tribunals a more affordable option.

'People are being priced out of challenging employers that dismiss them unfairly, discriminate against them or withhold wages,' she said.

'Four in five people who we help would be put off making a claim to an employment tribunal because of high fees. Many people would have to save for six months to afford fees of £1,200, and for some people the fees are higher than the amount they are claiming.'

Elsewhere in the report, proposals to raise immigration and asylum fees by 500 per cent, before reviewing the impact of the implementation of employment tribunal fees, were labelled as 'unwise'.

The committee also called for the increase in the divorce petition fee, from £410 to £550, to be rescinded.

Nigel Shepherd, chair of Resolution, welcomed the recommendation: 'The committee rightly recognises that this rise effectively amounted to a new tax on divorce; and that by raising it, people were being charged around twice what it actually costs to process a divorce petition.

'At the time the hike was announced, court staff, our members, and the people they help were given only a few days' notice of the new fee. We said then that the government should have waited until this report was published.

'Now that it has, we urge ministers to listen to the committee, reverse the fee hike, and reimburse the thousands of people who have been unfairly penalised as a result of the divorce tax'.

Also commenting on the report, the president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, said: 'The courts are essential to a fair and just society, and must not be treated as a revenue generating enterprise for government. While it is not unreasonable to ask users to contribute to the costs of the courts they use, those costs should not fall solely on those who apply to the courts to uphold their rights.

'We should all be equal under the law, but there is a growing imbalance created by fee increases that places the courts out of reach for many small businesses and all but the wealthiest individuals in society, putting them at an unfair disadvantage in a justice system that increasingly favours the better resourced.

'While we would have preferred to see a recommendation that all recent fee increases should be reversed pending a proper assessment of their impact on access to justice, we welcome the committee's call for reversal of some specific fee increases, and for reviews of the impact of others.'

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