A further round of court fee increases would amount to a “denial of access to justice”, the Civil Justice Council (CJC) has warned, adding its voice to the cacophony of opposition from the legal profession.
The CJC said individuals, small businesses and litigants in person would be particularly badly hit, with “sizeable court fees” becoming a “tipping point” in persuading them not to pursue a case.
Along with 10% increases in a range of general fees, the CJC cited “striking” increases of 124% for permissions to appeal and 158% for filing an appeal questionnaire at the Court of Appeal.
The Law Society, Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, City of London Law Society and Commercial Bar Association are among the legal bodies that have spoken out strongly against the new fees in recent days as the consultation closed, with the latter two also writing jointly to Lord Chancellor Michael Gove to draw his “personal attention to the serious financial impact that these further increases may have on London’s position as an international leader in dispute resolution”.
The CJC said there should have been monitoring of the impact of previous increases in the last 12 months before further rises were proposed, and noted that the latest proposals were the fourth in two years.
“The CJC will be very interested in seeing the statistics for claims made in the short and medium term and whether the fee rises have had a detrimental impact.
“There appears to the CJC to be a danger of a cycle developing where fees rise, numbers of cases fall, and the following year sees another rise to compensate for the loss of income which then drives further cases out of the system.”
The council said the large range of increase would act as a disincentive for SMEs with “sizeable” increases for business disputes over £20,000, with a claim for £350,000 seeing a 75% rise from £10,000 to £17,500.
The CJC went on: “Providers of arbitration services are already actively citing court fees in their marketing material as a reason not to use the courts.
“An increase in ombudsmen and current trends in establishing dispute resolution forums (for example the parallel government proposal to establish a small business commissioner) mean that the court system must be competitive.”
Internationally, the CJC said litigators would be “looking keenly” at the increase in the cap for high value claims, particularly the suggestion that the cap should be “at least” £20,000, leaving scope for yet higher fees.
The CJC concluded that it viewed “with dismay” the “unequal approach” taken by the government, with “a stated policy objective of using the civil justice system to support and subsidise the criminal, family and tribunal jurisdictions”.
The council added that the Civil Court User Survey 2014/15 found that 76% were not in receipt of state benefits, suggesting that the fee remission scheme would not help most litigants and “reinforcing access to justice concerns.”