The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is to press ahead with increasing online court fees in money and possession claims to bring them into line with paper claims in the face of opposition from the legal and credit sectors.
However, it only received 22 responses to the six-week consultation on the increases of at least 10% and in some cases 40%, with the Bar Council and Civil Justice Council among the respondents.
The MoJ said the changes would make “a significant contribution” – of between £9m and £25m a year – to its financial plans for 2022–23 and beyond.
The majority of respondents argued that the proposed fees did not represent the costs of proceedings, pointing out that higher-value claims did not necessarily correspond to more complex or lengthier cases.
This could deter some claimants from pursuing their case, inhibiting access to justice.
There was also a risk of debt collection companies discriminating between debtors, the MoJ was told, pursuing those owing smaller amounts more than those owing larger amounts.
However, respondents from the legal support sector supported the alignment on the grounds that it was unfair to charge paper users a higher fee than online users, especially as paper users often chose that route because they did not have internet access.
The MoJ argued that there was “a strong justification” to proceed with aligning the fees.
“The income received from fees covers less than half of the cost of running courts and tribunals. In 2019/20, for example, there was a net fee income of £724m against the £2bn running costs of HMCTS, a significant gap that affects the taxpayer and hinders the effective and efficient running of HMCTS, making it more difficult to ensure access to justice.
“We consider it is right that those court users who can afford to, should contribute more towards the operations of HMCTS. This proposal would provide much-needed additional income, which will be invested back into improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts and tribunals service.”
The consultation response said the government did not accept that alignment would inhibit access to justice, pointing to previous research indicating that fees were a secondary consideration in the decision to litigate.
It pointed out too that the alignment for claims under £10,000 – some 98% of all claims – meant an increase of £45 at most.
Further, “issue fees are proportionate to the sum in dispute”, the Help with Fees scheme was available to those who qualified, and specific money claims could be brought under conditional fee agreements.
The MoJ made one concession, relating to the fee for warrants of control. “We acknowledge the concerns that respondents raised in relation to the quality of the county court bailiff enforcement service,” it said.
“In particular, we recognise the difficulty users of the service currently experience in enforcing warrants in a timely manner, and the potential for increased debt to be passed on to debtors.”
Rather than align the £77 online fee to the £110 paper one, the MoJ is to apply a 7.7% inflationary increase backdated to 2016, when this fee was last amended, consolidating the online and paper fees to a new level of £83.
The new fees will come into force in May, subject to parliamentary time to consider the statutory instrument introducing them.