Stewarts recently responded to a consultation by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in relation to proposals to increase selected court fees and Help with Fees (HwF) income thresholds in line with inflation. Ben Connor outlines Stewarts’ response to the proposals.

The aim of the proposed reforms is to ensure that those who can afford to pay for the court service do so at a rate that is more comparable with the increased costs of providing it. The reforms will also provide much-needed funding to her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) and reduce the taxpayer contribution.

The MoJ will consider the views of the legal profession, the judiciary, the advice and voluntary sectors and all those with an interest in the work of HMCTS. It will then submit a report to parliament and decide whether to ratify the proposed increases.

Key points from Stewarts’ response

Our response focused on the potential impact of the reforms upon injury and family clients.

While the proposed increases are by no means drastic, they will raise the cost of litigation in both the Civil and Family Courts. Access to justice remains paramount. Any measures that may restrict a prospective claimant’s ability to pursue legal action should be carefully considered.

Personal injury claims

Significantly, the proposals for reform contained no plans to enhance the £10,000 issue fee applicable to civil claims with a value of greater than £200,000. The issue fee is already substantial for many of our injury clients and represents a key barrier to access to justice. Even a moderate increase in line with inflation could deter claimants from starting court proceedings.

On the same theme, Stewarts considered how court fee disbursements should be dealt with at the conclusion of a case. We suggested that defendants should be required to reimburse the state where a full or partial issue fee remission has been incurred (akin to the Compensation Recovery Unit scheme for welfare benefits). This will ensure the cost burden does not fall on the taxpayer.

Our response highlighted that many of our personal injury clients do not qualify for court fee remissions  but also cannot fund significant court fee disbursements. We suggested that the current HwF scheme tends to misrepresent the issue of affordability where, for instance, it considers the income of parents or a litigation friend as opposed to that of a child claimant.

Family proceedings

Stewarts underlined the alarming increase of litigants in person within the Family Court. This demonstrates the cost obstacle that already applies to many individuals. The cost of court proceedings in the Family Court is prohibitive for many and can leave individuals exposed if they fail to formalise a financial settlement on divorce, for example. The impact of increasing court fees, even marginally, would be greatest on lower-income households and would compound the existing inefficiencies and delay in the delivery of family justice.

We emphasised the need for the extra funding generated from the proposals to be channelled appropriately. This should be invested in technology to improve the Family Court’s service and address its backlog issues. This is of paramount importance given the advent of virtual hearings due to the pandemic and the Family Court’s increasing administrative reliance on online processes, particularly the filing of applications.

Conclusion

While we hold concerns about the current structure and the impact the proposals may have on access to justice (within an already chronically under-funded court system), we accept the need to review court fees.

Although those fees ought to be at a level that recovers a considerable amount of the cost of the service, it is incumbent upon the government to look beyond simply imposing court fee increases at public expense to enable the efficient running of its court system. The proposed fees should not just be increased in line with inflation year-on-year. Instead, they should represent the cost of proceedings and be directly proportionate to the quality of the service provided. They should also allow meritorious claims to have a proper route to justice without delay.