The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has said it will not be paying refunds to those charged certain civil and family court fees above the level required for cost recovery.
Peers on the House of Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee suggested that the government should be asked to explain why there would be no refunds.
In a report on the Court Fees (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2020 (SI 2020/720), which was laid in Parliament last month, the committee said the MoJ had undertaken a review of civil and family fees to anticipate costs for 2020-21.
This exercise had identified a number of fees which were charged at levels above cost “without the necessary parliamentary approval”.
The fees involved include those for non-contentious probate, civil and family proceedings and work at the magistrates’ courts, and are now being reduced.
The committee said many of the fees were being cut by more than half and the reduction was “often £60–£70”, reducing the annual fee income of HMCTS by up to £1.6m.
For example, the fee for the entry or extension of a probate caveat was reduced from £20 to £3; in family law, the fee for a request from a legally aided party for a detailed costs assessment fell from £200 to £94; and in civil proceedings, an application to vary a judgment or suspend proceedings was cut from £50 to £14.
The committee said the House of Lords “may wish to ask” the government for “further information about the decision not to refund those who had paid fees above cost, and what estimate the Ministry of Justice has made of the number of people affected.”
Peers said the statutory instrument came into effect at the weekend and Parliament had until 23 September to raise any issues.
In an explanatory memorandum, the MoJ said: “Some of these proceedings are likely to be brought by businesses, charities and voluntary bodies. To the extent that they are, these measures are expected to reduce the costs of these proceedings to those organisations. The overall impact is expected to be minimal.”
In July 2018, it continued, certain other court fees were reduced and a refund scheme was launched in January this year for those changes, which remains in operation.
“This action was taken as it was determined those fees were not set on the basis of a reasonable predictive estimate of the costs involved in delivering the services they relate to.
“The Ministry of Justice now conducts reviews of the costs of various HMCTS processes to ensure that no fee is inadvertently set above those costs.
“A refund scheme will not be launched in respect of the fees that are reduced in this instrument because they were at or below a reasonable predictive estimate of costs, based on the information available at that time, and, following the cost recovery assessment for 2018/19, the Ministry of Justice has taken prompt action to reduce them.”
A spokesman for the MoJ added: “The cost of delivering these services is based on careful analysis and all available evidence, and we are constantly working to improve this process to ensure the fees are aligned as far as possible to the cost of delivery.
“Fees that were found to recover more than the cost of the service during our annual review exercise will not be refunded because they were based on the best possible estimates at the time they were set.”