Access to justice at risk with court fee plans, warns CJC

Dyson: CJC chairman

Government plans to reform the regime for court fees remissions and introduce a means test are too severe and “will diminish access to justice for a sizeable group of low-income families”, the Civil Justice Council (CJC) has warned.

In a strongly worded response to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation, the CJC – which is headed by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson – said that with the civil justice and legal aid reforms meaning “many more litigants in person”, loading these changes on top will deter many people on low incomes from engaging in litigation.

Though “there are many aspects about this consultation which have caused the CJC concern”, the impact on low-income people was the main one, it said.

In 2011/12, approximately 171,000 fee remissions were granted with a total value of nearly £28m. The plans for a single system across courts and tribunals will provide “a better targeted system of fee remissions so that those who can afford to pay a fee do so”, the consultation said.

It proposed that for fees up to £1,000, remissions would be limited to those applicants whose household’s disposable capital does not exceed £3,000. For fees between £1,001 and £4,000, household disposable capital could not exceed £8,000, and £16,000 for the “rare” cases where the fee is more than £4,000.

The CJC said these were set too low. “Court fees form but part of the costs of litigation, even for litigants in person – to require someone to invest up to half of their overall disposable capital simply on the fee to bring a claim seems disproportionate, and would have an adverse effect on access to justice.

“To take one example, to expect someone to cash part of their partner’s £3,000 ISA in to pay up to £1,000 to pay a court fee is unacceptable (even if the ISA could be cashed in time to pay the fee to commence the proceedings or at all).

“We also have reservations about the shifting proportions. The thresholds proposed vary from a quarter to a third to a half of different levels of disposable income – a much higher threshold with a more consistent proportion would seem fairer – [and] in these proposals the more capital you have, the less you pay proportionately in court fees, which is against the spirit of these reforms.

The CJC was critical of the breadth of capital that would be included. “In addition, we do not agree with the proposed intention not to add protection for those who are saving for retirement in the context of the proposal to ignore the civil legal aid test. We are conscious that age is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, and this may give rise to charges of discrimination.”

The CJC said: “There are several aspects of the proposed reforms to full and partial remission of court fees that appear to be too severe. The whole basic framework of the current structure is being revised, and this will diminish access to justice for a sizeable group of low income families.”