1.Over the course of the 2010-15 Parliament, the Coalition Government pursued policies aimed at decreasing the net cost of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to the public purse, through the introduction of, and increases in, various fees and charges for people using the courts. These included the introduction of fees for employment tribunals; a regime of fees for civil proceedings, including some so-called “enhanced” fees set at a level in excess of the cost of the proceedings to which they apply; and a mandatory charge imposed on anyone convicted of a criminal offence (the criminal courts charge). During this Parliament the Government has continued to bring forward and implement proposals for new and increased fees across civil and family courts and tribunals.
2.On 21 July 2015, shortly after we were established as a Committee at the start of this Parliament, we announced an inquiry into the impact or likely impact of a range of changes to the regime of fees and charges applying to the courts and tribunals system. These changes included ones that had been implemented during the previous Parliament and further proposals that were being consulted on by the Government. On 20 November 2015 we published a report on the discrete topic of the criminal courts charge, calling for it to be withdrawn, and we were pleased to see that the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, responded swiftly and accepted our recommendation. We await further details of the announced Government review of the panoply of financial sanctions which may be imposed on those convicted of criminal offences. This Report does not deal further with the criminal courts charge. For the record, this Report also does not consider the Government’s proposals to reform fees for grants of probate, on which a consultation was begun in February 2016, after we had concluded taking evidence in our inquiry. Similarly, in April 2016 the Ministry published proposals to increase fees again, this time to full cost-recovery level, in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber: we have not taken evidence on these specific proposals but we comment on them taking into account the evidence we received in the context of the previous changes to fees introduced in the Chamber.
3.In relation to court and tribunal fees, the original terms of reference of our inquiry asked:
How have the increased court fees and the introduction of employment tribunal fees affected access to justice? How have they affected the volume and quality of cases brought?
How has the court fees regime affected the competitiveness of the legal services market in England and Wales, particularly in an international context?
4.After we launched our inquiry, in July 2015, the Government announced decisions to implement certain fee increases and launched a consultation on proposals for further fee increases. In response to this announcement we updated our terms of reference to include the following question:
How will the increases to courts and tribunals fees announced in Cm. 9123, “Court and Tribunal Fees”, published on 22 July 2015, and the further proposals for introducing or increasing fees included for consultation in Cm. 9123, affect access to justice?
5.The Government’s programme of reform of courts and tribunals fees has been an extensive one comprising a large number of changes, some great and some small. This report is not intended to be a complete and comprehensive examination of all these changes. We have limited our consideration to the most salient and controversial parts of the Government’s reform of court fees, and we have focused on the extent to which it is possible to determine whether the Government’s objectives, in particular the objective of maintaining access to justice, have been met or are likely to be met. We are aware that the empirical data available on different aspects of the effects of court fee reform varies, and that it in particular it is early to draw definite conclusions about the effects of enhanced fees.
6.Discounting written and oral evidence to our inquiry which dealt solely with the criminal courts charge, we have received 75 pieces of written evidence, and we held 4 oral evidence sessions, hearing from 23 people in person. All this evidence is available on our webpages. We are most grateful to all those who provided evidence to our inquiry.
7.In the next Chapter we describe the changes to courts and tribunal fees which are the subject of this Report, and the fee remission system which is the main safeguard for access to justice for those of limited means. In Chapter 3 we consider general matters which apply to the various elements of the Government’s fee reform programme, including the objectives of the programme and the extent to which they are being achieved, the principles of cost-recovery, enhanced fees and cross-subsidisation of different components of the courts and tribunals system, the adequacy of the research and evidence base on which the Government has founded its reforms, and the general effectiveness of fee remission in safeguarding access to justice. In Chapter 4 we consider further matters of concern in relation to particular parts of the fees regime: fees for employment tribunals; enhanced fees for divorce petitions and for money claims; and fees in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber. Finally, in Chapter 5 we consider general proposals presented for reform of the structure of fees and fee remission.
1 Second Report from the Justice Committee of Session 2015-16, , HC 586
2 Tribunal fees: Consultation on proposals for the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) and Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), , April 2016
3 Court and Tribunal Fees: The Government response to consultation on enhanced fees for divorce proceedings, possession claims, and general applications in civil proceedings; and Consultation on further fees proposals, Cm. 9123. Cm. 9123 was later replaced with Cm. 9124, laid in August 2015, which corrected an error in the original document: references in this report are therefore to .
16 June 2016