My Lords, we estimate that the introduction of enhanced court fees for money claims may generate around £120 million in additional income annually. There is a statutory requirement that income from enhanced fees must be used to fund an efficient and effective system of courts and tribunals. For the reasons set out in the Government’s consultation response published on 16 January, we do not believe that the policy will have a negative impact on access to justice.
Did the Minister, whose personal commitment to justice I do not for a moment doubt, notice that on Monday, when the Lord Chancellor was piously quoting Magna Carta to the Global Law Summit—
“to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”,
Mr Grayling intoned—his unfortunate junior Minister, Mr Vara, was attempting to explain to the House of Commons that what the Government euphemistically call “enhanced court fees” are actually intended to protect access to justice? Are not these increases in court fees, ranging to more than 600% and following upon the Government’s assaults on civil legal aid and judicial review, simply the latest instances of how this Government do in fact sell, deny and delay justice, in brazen contempt of Magna Carta and the rule of law?
No, I do not accept that characterisation of the Government’s policies in general or the enhanced court fees. The Government are committed to providing effective access to justice and a good and satisfactory court system which is paid for by litigants. The qualification to our enhanced court fees is that the 90% who are below £10,000 will not pay increased court fees, and we believe that the cost of the court system should be borne by those bringing larger claims.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the Lord Chancellor told the Global Law Summit that he is incredibly proud of our legal heritage? The next time the Minister sits down with the Lord Chancellor to discuss our legal heritage, will he point out that the best way to manifest that incredible pride would be to abandon regulations that will do incredible damage to access to justice because they will require traders and businesses who want to sue for £200,000 to pay an upfront fee of £10,000, which many of them will simply be unable to afford?
On the general point, there was reference in both questions to the Global Law Summit. Many pooh-poohed this enterprise, which noble Lords may now realise attracted more than 2,000 delegates, more than 100 Ministers of Justice and Attorneys-General and representatives of more than 100 countries, all of whom came to celebrate our heritage of the rule of law. I remain an adherent to that, as I am sure other noble Lords are. Nothing about the contents of that conference in any way derogated from that principle.
As to the more specific point, there are different provisions depending on the size of the claim. As the noble Lord will know, court fees usually form a small part of the overall bill compared with lawyers’ fees, which tend to be much higher. We do not believe that the increased court fees will act as a significant inhibition on claims.
My Lords, in my time, the consent of the heads of division was required to achieve an order for court fees. That requirement has since been removed, with the result that the heads of division are now no longer in complete control, as they were then. Notwithstanding that, I was successfully judicially reviewed in a court fees order that had the consent of all the heads of division. That could also happen. What is the purpose of dealing with this matter in a way that does not require the consent of the heads of division? I assume that the Government have answered the consultation. Does the Minister have the answer ready to hand?
My noble and learned friend will know that there were two consultations regarding these proposed enhanced fees, in which the judiciary’s comments were fully taken on board by the Government and certain modifications were made to the original proposals. However, ultimately, the question of fees and the cost of the courts is a matter for the Government to decide.
My Lords, I refer to my interest as an unpaid consultant in my former solicitor’s practice. On 15 February, the Observer reported Vince Cable’s request for information about the overall decline of 80% in employment appeal tribunal applications and 90% in sex discrimination cases since the imposition of substantial fees for those applications. Can the Minister tell us what reply the Lord Chancellor has made to Vince Cable’s request for information, and to his question about the Lord Chancellor’s failure to implement a promised review? In the light of this experience, why should we accept the Government’s assurances that increasing fees by up to 600% in the civil courts will not lead to fewer claims being brought there?
The question of employment tribunal fees is very different. There were, in fact, no fees at all. As a result of a relatively modest fee, there has been a significant decline in the number of claims brought. I am sure the noble Lord would accept that some of the claims brought hitherto were somewhat on the speculative side. That no longer takes place. Furthermore, the intervention of ACAS, as from May 2014, has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of these cases getting to employment tribunals, and surely it is better that tribunals should, on the whole, be avoided. What is more, as a result of our long-term economic plan there has been a significant increase in the number of people in employment. This Government are about hiring, not firing.