The Civil Justice Council (CJC) has strongly attacked plans by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to increase online court fees in money and possession claims to the same level as paper claims.
It warned that the increases, of at least 10% and in some cases 40%, could be counterproductive and reduce the total amount of fee income as demand slumped.
The CJC said the government’s own impact assessment acknowledged that the increases were likely to have an adverse impact on access to justice, by reducing the number of people “willing and able to bring their legal disputes to court”.
A “major benefit” of online processes was the ability to resolve claims at cheaper cost, and “this financial dividend should be enjoyed not just by taxpayers, but also by litigants using the system”.
The CJC said the fee increases may not even achieve the government’s stated objective of making savings for the taxpayer, because of a “likely fall in the number of claims, and the real risk of an increase” in the use of costlier paper processes.
“The financial case for reducing access to justice for civil court processes is further undermined by the fact that they are already fully funded by its users and cost the taxpayer nothing.”
The total running costs of the civil courts in 2019/20 was £545m and the income collected £550m once remissions were taken into account.
The CJC was responding to the consultation Alignment of the fees for online and paper money and possessions claims, launched by the MoJ in November.
The claims affected are those issued using the platforms Money Claim Online, Online Civil Money Claims, Possession Claims Online and using the County Courts Business Centre.
The government said it aimed to raise between £12m and £33m from 2022/23 onwards as a result of the changes, which it intended to introduce in May this year.
The CJC said that, according to the government’s impact assessment, a 10% increase in fees would result in a 2.5% reduction in claims, although the increases could be higher than 10%.
“The CJC believes that the deleterious effects of the predicted fall in access to justice should lead the government to reconsider the case for implementing these fee proposals. It will have a concrete negative impact on people who will no longer be able to bring their legal disputes to court.”
Referring to the ruling of the UK Supreme Court in Unison, the CJC said the proposals would undermine the “generally held belief” that remedies were available in the event that legal obligations were breached.
“The government asserts that the goal of getting people to adopt online processes has now been achieved, and hence there is no longer a need to maintain the discount.
“However, this assumes that all litigants using online processes are repeat players who are now familiar with those processes and comfortable with them.”
The CJC said that “even a small increase in the ratio of litigants using paper processes” was likely to have a “significant negative impact” on the revenue generated by the proposals.
It added that the increase in court fees was likely to have a “disproportionate effect on vulnerable litigants”, many of whom would have protected characteristics.