MPs told fees rise was based on ‘hopeless’ evidence to plug £100m hole and hit small businesses, divorcees and employees
The master of the rolls said ‘enhanced fees’ meant users of civil courts were subsiding the family and criminal courts. Photograph: Velar Grant/Demotix/Corbis
Court fee increases that were hastily introduced to plug a £100m hole in the Ministry of Justice’s budget were based on “hopeless” evidence, according to the most senior civil judge in England and Wales.
Giving evidence to the justice select committee, the Master of the Rolls, John Dyson, highlighted the financial problems of the department under which the government is trying to make the justice system self-financing.
In what amounted to a display of judicial alarm at MoJ policy under the previous justice secretary, Chris Grayling, three of the most senior civil judges warned of the danger of raising tribunal and court fees too high.
“Enhanced fees” are designed to make a profit, charging claimants more than the administrative cost of the service.
“The users of the civil courts are subisdising the family courts and criminal courts,” Lord Dyson said on Tuesday. “I think it’s wrong in principle … but it’s a policy matter as to whether parliament should go down that route.
“It is, I’m afraid, why the risk of denying access to justice for a lot of people is so intense in these proposals.”
People in small enterprises and business would be deterred from litigation, Dyson said.
Fee increases “won’t deter rich people but small businesses. With the type of people this government said it wanted to encourage because they will be the engine for [economic] growth, many of them are most at risk.”
Dyson continued: “We have warned of the real dangers and we also warned that the reseach carried out by the government before it embarked on this course of action was lamentable.”
Only 31 calls were made to ask what impact it would have, mainly to wealthier court users who could afford the increase in fees, he said.
“[The MoJ] made assumptions that demand would not be affected by these changes and they based that assumption on a very, very limited evidential base … I’m extremely sceptical about that assumption.”
Dyson acknowledged that £700m had been made available for court modernisation, but observed: “The government’s track record on IT projects is not exactly shining.”
Sir James Munby, the judge in charge of the family courts, said the administrative cost of a divorce was around £200 but the MoJ considered charging £750. It was eventually fixed at a profit-making level of £550.
Any divorce must go through the courts.
“Can we continue putting fees up until it becomes another poll tax on wheels?” Munby asked. “Those who want to divorce will probably still do so through gritted teeth but it doesn’t mean you can keep on putting up the fees.”
By comparison, he said, it cost around £100 to register a marriage. “People will see that it doesn’t cost six or eight times as much to get divorced as it does to get married.”
He said one of the first legal functions to go online was likely to be divorce. “It won’t take long to work out that the cost of administering it online is a fiction.”
Making it possible to process a divorce online was fairly straightforward compared with other types of cases, Munby added.
“If it can’t be done we are in very big trouble. I have been discussing online divorce with [MoJ] officials for several months now.
“I’m becoming increasingly concerned and the current position is that the ability to deliver it is a question on which the jury is out. I’m disappointed about where we have got to after many months of work. I still have no clear answers to such basic questions as what is the overall timeline for this process.”
Sir Ernest Ryder, who is in charge of employment and immigration tribunals, said increases in fees for employment tribunals had resulted in a 70% fall in the number of claims being brought over a single year.
“That’s an extraordinary position that demands an explanation,” he told MPs.
There was no evidence, as some had argued, that a rise in fees had deterred supposedly spurious claims, he said.
At justice questions in the Commons shortly afterwards, Labour justice spokesman Andy Slaughter took up Lord Dyson’s comments. “The Master of the Rolls described the fee increases affecting civil litigants of small businesses as a desperate way of carrying on based on hopeless research,” he said. “It is another car crash. Is it time for another U-turn?”
The justice secretary, Michael Gove, replied: “One of the biggest barriers to justice, as the Master of the Rolls and others have pointed out, is costs. Action needs to be taken to reduce costs in civil justice. It is not enough simply to say that the taxpayer must shoulder the burden. We need reform of our legal system to make access to justice easier for all.”