Once again, this is a current affairs story of the kind that law students need to keep track off. Fellow law students, consider the following post a legal awareness story, and an important example of how politics and the legal sphere interact.
Recently, I wrote a post relating to Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement that he would be repealing the criminal courts charge. The criminal courts charge, which had been a brainwave from the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and introduced this year, had attracted much criticism and was considered both unpopular and controversial.
In my post, I weighed the pros and cons of the charge, and highlighted the stories pertaining to the charge which had made the news, such as the case of Magistrate Nigel Allcoat, who was suspended and later resigned due to assisting in the payment of the mandatory charge on behalf of an asylum seeker. I concluded that the announcement to repeal the charge was evidence that just sometimes, criticism of a governmental policy can bring about change.
A pity then that, despite the unpopularity of the criminal courts charge and its apparent repeal, there was the news this Thursday 17th December that there would be a steep rise in court fees. Apparently we are being subject to a case of reduce fees in one area to merely increase fees in another.
The announcement from the Ministry of Justice (hereafter MOJ) was rather skilfully dropped during a day of multiple announcements, as many departments sought to quickly dump bad news on the last day of the Parliamentary term. This move, which wonderful US political drama The West Wing neatly referred to as ‘Take out the Trash Day’, is not unheard of. It is rather the governmental tradition to deliberately release multiple inconvenient reports and statements, in the hope they will escape scrutiny from media and political quarters.
This was the case on Thursday, given that there were many stories to keep the media’s attention away from the deluge of announcements. We had Prime Minister David Cameron attending an EU summit in Brussels, commencing his renegotiation talks in relation to Britain’s EU membership referendum. The focus was on the ongoing debate over the Prime Minister’s demand to restrict benefit payments to EU migrant workers, as many of his European peers argued it was discriminatory and contrary to the free movement and non-discrimination principles of the EU. We also had the breaking story that a government-commissioned report on the House of Lords recommended that the House of Lords be stripped of its veto power.
Yet on Thursday, ministers released some 36 written statements which would have been headline news in their own right, save that Parliament was on the cusp of closing for the Christmas holidays. One such statement was from the MOJ, pertaining to court fees.
The MOJ announced a fresh round of court fee increases, which are apparently essential to plug a £1 billion funding gap in the UK justice system.
Following on from a summer consultation, court fees will rise by 10% across a range of civil proceedings, including enforcement proceedings, determination of costs proceedings and civil business in magistrates’ courts.
In addition, court fees will be introduced in the general regulatory chamber and tax chamber of the first-tier tribunal, and in the upper tribunal tax and Chancery chamber for the first time.
The government did however decide against doubling the maximum court fee cap to £20,000; the maximum fee cap for money claims will remain at £10,000. Yet it will still press ahead with its planned 10% increase in court fees across the range of civil proceedings.
With FOI being topical, it is no surprise that it was also mentioned during the statement. The MOJ opted to defer any decision on whether to introduce a fee for bringing an appeal against a decision of the Information Commissioner until the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information submits its completed report next year.
Justice minister Shailesh Vara stated on Thursday that:
“There remains a need to ensure the courts are not placing too great a burden on the taxpayer. Courts and tribunals in England and Wales cost £1.7bn in 2014-15, but we only recovered £700m in income. That is a net cost to the taxpayer of around £1bn.
“It is therefore right that we ask for a greater contribution from court users who can afford to pay more…”
It is interesting to note that the Law Society condemned the court fee increases, with Law Society President Jonathan Smithers saying:
“The court service must not be treated as a profit centre, used to subsidise other public services.”
Personally, I read of the MOJ’s statement with despair, simply because it feels eerily like a case of one step forward, two steps back.
I thought the government sought to end the establishment of a two-tier justice system whereby the wealthier may be more able to bring forward cases with the Gove announcement to repeal the criminal courts charge. Yet with the statement on Thursday, it would appear that the government is continuing to seek to fund the justice system through the public, still sticking to its argument that the public must contribute their fair share to the justice system which serves them.
Why can the government not see that by increasing court fees, they may be creating artificial and pricey barriers to accessing the courts and attempting to access justice for those on lower incomes? Increasing court fees, and thereby deterring those from less privileged backgrounds from seeking redress via the courts system, essentially establishes a justice system which can only be relied upon by those who can afford it. The government is basically charging for justice and redress, and personally speaking, I find there to be something rather abhorrent about that.
Moreover, the fact that such an important and costly statement was released the day before the end of the Parliamentary term, and deliberately released as part of a deluge of announcements, emphasises how the government was aware this would be unpopular. Unpopular, and yet they decided to persist with the move anyway, after barely several weeks since the announcement to repeal the widely-criticised criminal courts charge.
Everyone has the right to a fair trial, everyone should be entitled to seek redress and access justice in the courts – in theory. In practical application however, we see now that it really comes down to whether you can afford to pay.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather not live in a society where the justice system is more accessible for the rich, and a mere tantalising, but unobtainable prospect for everyone else.
Justice should not come with a price tag, twinned with a blank chequebook. The sooner the government realises this, the better.