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Courts: Fees

Volume 704: debated on Monday 6 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of the impact of self-financing fees on the ability of applicants to bring cases in the civil courts.

My Lords, civil and family court fees are generally set to reflect the full cost of the system, but this does not mean that the courts are fully self-financing. The taxpayer funds a fee remissions scheme to protect access to justice for those who need financial assistance. Following a review, a public consultation and an independent research study, a revised remissions scheme was introduced in October last year. My department recently commissioned research to evaluate the new scheme. It is expected to report in spring 2009.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am concerned that local authorities wishing to bring a care case will find that their fee has gone from £150 to £4,500, which is an increase of 2,500 per cent. I am concerned that this might mean local authorities delay bringing their cases because their social services budgets are so stretched. Could that place children at more risk?

My Lords, there is currently no evidence that fee increases affect the number of cases coming to court. It is true that public law family fees were introduced in May 2008, which coincided with the public law outline national rollout in April. That outline was introduced in pilot courts last year to clarify and narrow the issues in dispute, leading to greater focus and fewer unnecessary hearings. Everyone would agree that in family public law matters of that kind, it is better to have fewer hearings if it is at all possible. When the guidelines that were introduced last year are also taken into account, one may see fewer cases eventually coming to court. If so, that will be a good thing. We are not trying to discourage proper cases from coming to court. What is important is that fewer cases come to court if that is possible.

My Lords, I acknowledge the work that is being undertaken to prevent families and children having to face court, but does the Minister not agree that there are still serious delays in the family court system and that when those delays affect the safeguarding and development of children, because they are waiting for cases to be heard, this is to be deplored? Will the Government do all in their power to ensure that those cases that do have to go to court are heard as speedily as possible? I declare an interest as the deputy chair of CAFCASS.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, whose expertise in this field is well known to the House. I agree entirely with what she says. Of course, cases should be brought to court at the appropriate time. I am glad that she agrees with what I said earlier—that it is better not to have unnecessary court cases, particularly involving children.

My Lords, when I initiated a debate on this subject on 2 May 2007, the then Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, promised that there would be research. That was 18 months ago. Why has there been this long delay in that crucial research to look at the adverse impact of the full cost recovery policy on the most vulnerable? Does the Minister know that the Civil Justice Council and senior judges have expressed again and again to the department their view that the system does not adequately protect the constitutional rights of access to justice? More recently, experienced legal practitioners have expressed their concern that in public law proceedings, including cases involving children at risk in care proceedings, local authorities under this policy will not be able to afford to bring the statutory proceedings needed to protect children. Is the Minister aware of that? Is he aware of any other country in which that policy is being pursued?

My Lords, when consultation was taking place on the effect that the increase in fees, along with the other matters that I have raised, might mean for public law cases in the family field, the Local Government Association said in its response:

“There is no evidence to suggest that local authorities would act inappropriately”.

It does not accept that local authorities are influenced by cost considerations in their approach to initiating proceedings, or in their decision about pre-proceeding work. The new scheme came into effect only in May this year, less than six months ago. It is important that we give it a bit of time to bed down before deciding whether there is anything that we need to do about it.

My Lords, does the Minister recollect the words of Mr Justice Darling, some three-quarters of a century ago, when he said that the courts of this land were open to everybody, the same as the Ritz Hotel?

On a more sober note, what percentage of the adult population of England and Wales is on financial grounds practically exempt from legal aid? How does that compare broadly with the situation some 20 years ago?

My Lords, I remember the phrase, not because I was around at the time, but because I was tutored in it as a law student—although I am afraid that that was many years ago.

I cannot give the noble Lord the figures on the number of individuals who would not qualify for legal aid, but I can tell him that for fee remissions—which is what this Question is primarily about—the figure for 2007-08 was £27 million, with approximately 207,000 instances of fee remissions in the family and civil field. Of course, fees do not come into the question when we are talking about criminal proceedings.

My Lords, when Ministers come to consider the fee remission scheme later in the year, will they take the trouble to talk to high street solicitors around the country, who are saying consistently that they no longer find it economic to bring cases for poor, vulnerable and threatened people? Will they try to ensure that the legal system is as truly accessible to all citizens as I suspect that every Member of this House would wish it to be?

My Lords, the Government wish it to be so as well, of course. I praise the noble Lord’s expertise, too. We spend more on legal aid per head in this country than any other country in the world, but we shall of course talk to high street solicitors, as we shall to other members of that profession and to members of his own profession.