Question for Short Debate
My Lords, in opening this debate, I remind Members that my declaration of interests is in the register. I am raising this matter today because I find it cause for great concern that the rights of the individual to deal with their own problems have been seriously eroded. It is essential that this does not go unrecognised. Whereas in the past everyone had direct, affordable access to some fair processes of resolution, these have been and are being removed. In my opinion, this is a retrograde step and, whatever our means, we should not be forced to line the lawyers’ pockets. I deplore the changes to tribunals, which were accessible and affordable for so many people. It seems wrong that self-help has gone.
I intend to concentrate my remarks on the employment tribunal and the leasehold valuation tribunal, where I have had direct personal experience. Employment tribunals were introduced by Ted Heath in 1974 under the name “industrial tribunals”. At the beginning, panel members were appointed as individuals and it was only later, when the value of the system was appreciated and agreed, that the lay nominations came from the TUC and the CBI. Normally, two lay members sat with a chairman. I sat in central London. Because so few women had been appointed at the beginning, my appointment was picked up by the CBI and I served from 1974 to 1997. The cases were very wide-ranging and some were very lengthy. No fee was payable by the applicant. Now it is £160 to £250 to issue a claim, and £950 to have a hearing. Any employee who considered they were wrongly dismissed or unfairly treated was entitled to bring their case in person to the tribunal. I believe they always got a fair hearing.
One day my faith in the fair hearing was thrown into question when the hearing panel members assembled prior to the case. We had a considerable quantity of paper about the case of a man who had worked for a large beauty products company for 40 years. The TUC representative said to the other two of us, “This is a scandal. This man has worked for the company for 40 years and they are putting him off. It is not right”. The chairman said we would know more when we heard the case. I said nothing but I was worried that a member’s mind might be set prior to the hearing. There were many witnesses and the case took all day. We retired to consider our decision. The chairman sought our views and the TUC man immediately said, “Forty years? I don’t know how they stuck him for that long. They did everything they could, moving him from job to job in the firm. They could do no more”. This restored my faith in the importance of actually hearing both sides of these cases. I believe the system was fair and well used.
When this House was on Report on what became the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, I was responsible for an amendment which outlawed frivolous or vexatious litigants. The head of the Tribunals Service advised me in the drafting of the amendment and the Government, after changing one lower-case letter to a capital, accepted the wording in its entirety. The need for that amendment was brought to my attention when an applicant appeared before our tribunal and it emerged that he was making a full-time living travelling around the country, basing his cases on failed job applications. He was a qualified radiographer. He applied for every hospital radiology job advertised and if he did not get an interview he went to the tribunal on grounds of discrimination. He had all travel and accommodation expenses paid, in many interesting places, and often got good compensation. He was abusing the system and being paid to do so. If he did get an interview, he never got the job as hospitals needed radiographers who had worked with human beings and his experience was specifically with concrete blocks and other inanimate objects.
There are charities which try to help individuals with advice. As they do not charge fees, they rely on grants and donations and the lawyers are generally not very well paid. The citizens advice bureaux still exist but their resources are really stretched and in many cases are simply not available to people. My neighbour, an employment lawyer since 1990, has volunteered to help others through the citizens advice bureaux for years. Welfare and debt account for the largest number of cases. Employment cases were 6% of 10% of the more than 10,000 applications they had last year. She has told me that a major problem is that the individual very often has no idea what their terms of employment are, and that they do not know that under Section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 they are entitled to a statement of particulars of employment. There is often a real problem in identifying the correct name of the employer. Many employers use an organisation whose name appears on the payslip but it is not the employer and getting hold of documents can be very difficult. Individuals have often had but lost their copy of the terms of employment.
Whereas in the past many of these things could be done on a do-it-yourself basis, now it seems that people find that they have no choice but to use legally qualified people, which involves extra costs that they can ill afford. Some lawyers help people on an ex gratia basis. There are many good specialists who do pro bono work, either because they dislike a system which fails to protect vulnerable groups in society or because they need the practice; for example, junior barristers cutting their teeth. Large firms encourage junior solicitors to do pro bono work, perhaps because it impresses corporate clients. Organisations such as the Employment Lawyers Association have a pro bono arm, where people can volunteer to take on a case. This is not and should not be a substitute for the right to a fair trial, which should be available without relying on the kindness of strangers. It is essential that individuals should have the tools made available to enforce their rights, otherwise these rights are meaningless. Those who have savings and therefore do not qualify for remission of fees have to find the money before they can start a claim. This means that “bad” employers can benefit from the fact that people who save are hit with having to pay a fee to claim their employment rights.
My other direct experience was with leasehold valuation tribunals. These were abolished in 2013 and many people are disadvantaged by this. I took a full part in what became the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, which introduced these tribunals. It was fully debated in your Lordships’ Chamber and after hearing that the Government proposed covering full costs,
“down to the milk for the office cat”,—[Official Report, 10/7/1996; col. 348.]
the House’s decision was that those who brought their cases, even if they lost, would not be required to pay more than £500. Now these cases go straight to the First-tier Land Tribunal and I understand that it is at least £500 to enter your case.
An important role of the leasehold valuation tribunal was determining the value for a lease extension and the terms thereof. Most flats and some houses are held on leasehold tenure and, if the lease drops to too few years, its value becomes very small and the amount that has to be paid to extend the lease increases exponentially. The hearing of my own application for a lease extension took the form of four days in front of the tribunal and a visit to the flat by the chairman of the hearing panel. Everything seemed to be done very thoroughly. As other cases were heard by different members of the tribunal and there were periods when you had to just sit and wait, I sat in on a lot of cases and the standards were very high.
The 2002 Act made it clear that normally, if costs were charged, they would not exceed £500 per application. Now these cases have to go to the First-tier Land Tribunal. One of the worst things is that unscrupulous head lessees or freeholders often employ a QC and, win or lose, they charge those high legal fees back to the leaseholders as part of the service charge. This is not fair and I consider it an abuse of the system. The leasehold valuation tribunal was abolished by statutory instrument in 2013 and I was the only Member to speak in opposition, perhaps because with those instruments you have to say yes or no; you cannot consider any review.
The Prime Minister has spoken and made it clear that those who work hard and whose family budgets are already under heavy pressure should not continue to be disadvantaged. Surely it is time to look again at helping with access to tribunals and their replacements. Unless ordinary people can access a system available to help them enforce their rights, those rights are meaningless, as I said. These fees are preventing genuine cases being heard.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for asking this Question for Short Debate and proud to be the sole representative of the Cross Benches among the select band from across the House which has assembled to discuss it. The available evidence indicates that the proportion of litigants appearing before the civil and family courts without legal representation—litigants in person, also sometimes called self-represented litigants—has increased since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act took many civil and private law children and family cases out of the scope of legal aid in England and Wales from 1 April 2013. I have become involved in these issues through the work of the commission that I chaired on the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law, and I declare that as an interest.
One of the policy responses that the commission has been concerned with has been the Ministry of Justice’s decision, two years ago, to fund and support a Litigant in Person Support Strategy, encouraged by the Civil Justice Council’s work and drawing on many of the resources from the pro bono, legal information, personal support and other support sectors, such as Law for Life’s Advicenow website, with a personal support unit providing additional capacity and better co-ordination of pro bono. More than 1 million people used the Advicenow website last year, with 50,000 accessing pro bono legal advice through clinics supported by the strategy and more than 50,000 being provided with practical and emotional support via the personal support unit. The litigant in person strategy is an excellent initiative but one has to remember that it has been developed in a context in which more than 700,000 people have lost their entitlement to legal aid in family and civil matters. Moreover, they now have to pay much steeper fees if they want to bring cases as litigants in person. In terms of access to justice, this amounts to a double whammy.
Over the past few years, fees for litigants bringing cases have increased and mushroomed across our civil courts, family courts and tribunals. There have been a number of proposals for further increases. These issues have to be considered together with the impact of legal aid cuts on the outcomes delivered by the justice system. Take employment tribunals, for example, where legal aid was cut to zero and steep tribunal fees were introduced, as we heard at length from the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. Since August 2013 the issue fee in employment tribunals, having been nothing at all, may now be £250 and the hearing fee as much as £950 in more complex cases. These may include discrimination, equal pay and unfair dismissal claims. For claims to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, the issue fee is £400 and the hearing fee is £1,200. Fees can be waived if the party cannot afford to pay but however that may be, since introducing fees the volume of employment tribunal claims has plummeted.
Between October 2013 and September 2014, single claims brought by individuals were 64% down on the previous 12 months and multiple claims—those brought by more than one person—were down by 67%. In 2015, the number of employment tribunal cases brought by single individuals declined by 67% and the number of multiple claims by 72%. Even if one accepts that the imposition of fees was flushing out some unmeritorious cases, they are clearly having a very negative impact on access to justice.
Last July’s report from the Justice Select Committee in the other place criticised many aspects of the fees and charges regime: not just employment tribunal fees but civil fees, which have risen by up to 600%. Last autumn, there were proposals for an increase of up to 500% in immigration tribunal fees—again, a jurisdiction that was mostly taken out of scope of legal aid by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Only a matter of weeks into their implementation, the Government had to abandon them when they realised that the projected levels of fee income from this increase would not materialise, as the volume of claims would be so depressed. This seems to follow a familiar pattern from the time when Michael Gove had to scrap the criminal courts charge, which was clearly not working but just serving to penalise poor people for the right of citizens to use the courts. There is clearly also a strong case for reviewing these massive increases in employment tribunal fees. I should be grateful if the Minister told us whether the Government would be willing to consider this.
The respected commentator Roger Smith has spoken about,
“the economic cleansing of the … courts”,
by deliberately denying poor people access to justice through new economic barriers and much reduced public assistance to support litigants through the system. I could go on at length about the false logic and false economy of the MoJ seeking full-cost recovery, and more besides, from court users and trying to use court fees as an income-generating vehicle to offset the Treasury’s meanness to the MoJ. However, I am interested more broadly in the question of how we reclaim the courts and tribunals for citizens, especially poorer and disadvantaged citizens. Part of the answer must be to make the whole process cheaper, with less reliance on expensive paper-based bureaucracy, the removal of costly delays in proceedings through more streamlined processes and better case management systems to minimise the wastage of court and judicial time.
The whole process also needs to be redesigned with the needs of litigants in person in mind. I am encouraged by the Briggs proposals for court reform and digitisation, and the Government’s take-up of those proposals. However, until one actually sees them in operation one must have reservations about whether the Government’s commitment to funding better assisted digital legal services to help the least legally or IT-literate communities will actually materialise in practice.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, on securing this debate and, I would add, on the eloquent and sympathetic way in which she opened it. The central problem highlighted by this debate, through the rather different approaches of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Low, whom I and the whole House commend for the impressive work that he and his commission have carried out in this area, is that less legal aid has meant more litigants in person, while dramatic increases in court fees have restricted access to justice by another route.
Cuts in legal aid, particularly cuts in scope, were bound to lead to more litigants in person but their impact in so doing has been dramatic. This has been particularly severe in family cases, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Low, because most are out of scope. The National Audit Office reports an increase since the LASPO Act in cases with neither party represented of 30% in child contact cases and 22% in family cases overall. Approximately 80% of all family cases have at least one litigant in person, and of course in such cases this is serious, because most litigants come to court when their lives are turbulent and feelings between the parties are highly emotional and often deeply hostile. This does not achieve calm and cool dispute resolution and is certainly not in the best interests of any children involved.
However, in other civil litigation too, judges are daily frustrated at trying to get through their lists efficiently and justly while battling to explain to angry litigants how and where they have gone wrong in the process, as well as trying to understand how parties are trying to put their cases in a way that makes sense in law. So the speed and efficiency of the judicial process have suffered, and inevitably and sadly, so has the quality of justice. At the same time, the cost of cases to the public purse has significantly increased, as the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have pointed out, diminishing the savings made by cutting legal aid.
To add to the problem, the Government have thrown into the mix increased court fees, increasing the burden on litigants struggling without representation. These are not just fees to cover administering litigants’ own cases, but so-called enhanced fees to pay for running the whole system, allowing the MoJ to make profits in some areas to pay costs incurred in others. Many of us believe that the state has a fundamental responsibility to provide courts to resolve citizens’ disputes in accordance with the law, and to do so free of charge. Even many who do not take that purist view in difficult times believe there is something deeply offensive about enhanced court fees, charged at levels that exceed the cost of administering the cases concerned so as to make the whole court system self-financing.
Furthermore, it was always obvious that introducing very high court fees would reduce the number of cases brought. In 2015, a number of professional bodies assembled evidence which showed that,
“the total value of cases brought by individuals would likely fall by around one-third … under higher court fees. For small- and medium-sized companies it would halve”.
This evidence was in sharp contrast to the complacent and misguided assumptions underlying the Government’s impact assessment of enhanced court fees, which said first that the,
“changes will not affect case volumes”,
that there would be,
“no … detrimental impact on outcomes for … court cases or access to justice”,
and thirdly that,
“there would be no impact on legal services used to pursue and to defend a claim”.
I accept that we were in coalition at the time, but I spoke out against those fees then and make no apology for doing so again now. The Lord Chief Justice and senior judiciary described the assumptions as,
“very sweeping and, in our view, unduly complacent”.
Last year, Lord Dyson, the then Master of the Rolls, gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee, that they were based on a “very limited evidential base” and that he was “extremely sceptical” about them. He described enhanced fees as wrong in principle, and the Government’s preparatory research as “lamentable”.
In practice, the dire predictions of a reduction in case numbers are proving justified. We need more evidence on civil cases generally, but as the noble Lord, Lord Low, pointed out, the immediate 70% reduction overall in employment tribunal claims was severe. Furthermore, there was no increase in the success rate of claims, so one can deduce that fees have not discouraged spurious claims but have only prevented claims, meritorious or not, from being brought.
When Michael Gove was Justice Secretary—before his career took a different direction—he said in the House of Commons that,
“one of the biggest barriers to justice … 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”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/1/16; col. 145.]
On that issue I agree with Michael Gove. I also agree with the Conservative chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill MP, who said in June:
“Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving full cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter must prevail”.
Access to justice has been subjected to a pincer movement of restricted legal aid and increased court fees, which has had the dual effect of deterring litigants and reducing the effectiveness of the court system.
On legal aid, we need an urgent review of the areas in scope to see where the hardship is biting deepest and to relieve it. Social welfare and family cases are two of the prime areas for alleviation. We must make it easier to apply for and to secure exceptional case funding, and we must review the system for applying for legal aid in domestic violence cases to make it more humane and easier to navigate.
On court fees, I suggest there are three things to be done. First, we should be reducing court fees to a reasonable level—never more than the cost of administering claims—to ensure that litigants are not deterred by fees from bringing genuine claims. Secondly, we should be introducing a far fairer fee remission scheme. The present capital and disposable income thresholds are far too low and stop poor litigants bringing genuine claims. Thirdly, we should be looking at spreading fees in civil litigation more evenly over the life of cases—which is done in part already in employment cases—rather than front-loading them, as is done now in civil cases, with huge issue fees and only modest fees later on. The present arrangements deter claims to collect difficult-to-recover undisputed debts and encourage unscrupulous debtors to avoid payment in the hope that the fees will put off their creditors.
These are practical steps, intended to go some way to reverse a steady decline in access to justice under successive Governments in recent decades. The measures I have suggested have cost implications, but they are targeted to address the most urgent crisis points. In the longer term, only a more wide-ranging review will enable us to restore and sustain access to civil justice to the standard we would all wish to see, and to which we all claim to aspire, but which I fear we have painfully failed to attain in recent years.
My Lords, first, I declare my interest as an unpaid consultant in my former solicitor’s practice, and I suppose I should mention that my daughter practises in the fields of housing and employment law, and sits as a part-time deputy district judge. I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness on securing this debate. Her initiative is the more welcome coming, as it does, from a respected occupant of the Government Benches.
Access to justice has been an all too regular subject of debate in my six and a half years’ membership of this House, with the coalition and Conservative Governments laying down road blocks in the form of huge increases in fees where they already existed, new impositions where—as in the case of employment tribunals—they did not exist and savage reductions in legal aid, to which noble Lords have already referred. Senior members of the judiciary have repeatedly complained, rightly, that these measures have led to a significant increase in the number of cases in which parties are not represented, with the consequent legal equivalent of bed-blocking wasting the time of the courts and proving the validity of the old maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.
A year ago, the then Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee, described the evidence on which the Government based their increase in court fees as “hopeless” and pointed out that they had consulted all of 31 people on the proposal. Sir Ernest Ryder, in charge of employment and immigration tribunals, pointed to the 70% reduction in tribunal applications, which he described as,
“an extraordinary position that demands an explanation”.
Needless to say, no such explanation has been vouchsafed. In one sense, of course, the explanation is simple: the fee can be as much as £1,200.
The Civil Justice Council had warned that the,
“reductions and changes in legal aid will have the most serious consequences. This is not simply because of their scale, it is also by reason of their design and incidence. Among other things they will have a disproportionately adverse effect on the most vulnerable”.
It forecast correctly that,
“the number of self-represented litigants will increase, and on a considerable scale”,
leading to cases being longer than they need to be, and with,
“increasingly wide and serious of consequences for the individual, for families, and the state”.
Indeed, there have been large reductions in important areas of the law, including housing, where there has been a reduction of 18% in cases at a time when there have been record numbers of repossessions of private rented property. Some 43,000 households were evicted in 2015—an all-time high and 53% more than in 2010. Legal aid is available in housing eviction cases, but the problem here is the collapse of the supply side in the shape of legal aid lawyers specialising in housing law, such that there are areas of the country with very few legal aid housing lawyers and in a couple of cases, Suffolk and Shropshire, none at all. One-third of legal aid areas have just one solicitor providing legal aid in housing cases. As Legal Action Group director Steve Hynes observed:
“Civil legal aid services are in freefall, with solicitor firms and advice agencies closing”.
Given that even where legal aid is available fees are only £57 per hour, or £63 per hour for a court appearance, it is hardly surprising that not too many people are practising. My charging rate when I was last in practice 13 or 14 years ago was higher than that, and I venture to surmise that the Minister’s charging rate at the Scottish Bar might have been somewhat higher still. Interestingly, McKenzie Friends, unqualified people assisting litigants, are now charging as much as £125 an hour for their services. Shelter has 17 offices offering legal assistance, some of them being the only source in their area.
So how much have the Government been saving from the impact of the changes in housing law? How much have council housing and other budgets such as those for benefits and social care been affected as a consequence of evictions and disrepair, which might otherwise have been dealt with via the justice system? In the area of family law there has been a significant drop in cases where domestic violence, which could trigger legal aid, is not an issue, so that in those cases legal aid is not available. However, the much-vaunted alternative to court proceedings, mediation, has fallen by two thirds. The people most likely to be affected by that are, of course, women and children. Mental health cases have also declined—due largely, it again appears, to a shrinking of the supply side of legal advice, as in housing. Debt and welfare cases have seen large reductions of 61% and 56% respectively. Nor are these difficulties confined to individuals. Small businesses also face difficulties from higher court fees.
The Justice Select Committee’s report was damning about the Government’s policy. It is unlikely to have been impressed by what passes for the Government’s reply, published five months later and consisting of four full pages and five other pages containing a total of all of 15 paragraphs. One of those pages deals with the controversial proposal for immigration tribunal fees, and I am thankful that the Government have at least abandoned that proposal. The Government declared that they would publish their review of employment tribunal fees “in due course”. How long will this pretty simple issue take to resolve? How long does the Minister expect the review of pregnancy and discrimination claims to take?
The Government dismissed the committee’s concerns about the significant increase in the fees for issuing divorce petitions, saying that help is available for those unable to pay. But how widely is that known? In so far as the Government are right to claim that women are less likely to have to pay the full fee than men, is it not the case that by the same token they are less likely to be able to pay for legal advice and representation, thereby being placed at a disadvantage and increasing the problem of litigants in person, especially acute in cases of this nature?
In responding to the committee’s suggestion that there should a pilot of graduated fees, the Government declared that a balance had to be struck between the certainty of fixed fees and charging more for those who,
“make greater use of the courts and tribunals”.
Can the Minister explain this wording? Does “greater use” refer to frequency and, if so, in what sense, or content? Would an income-related or means-related system not be sufficient?
The committee suggested that in employment tribunal cases the respondent should pay, but the suggestion was rejected because respondents have,
“little influence over the decision to litigate”.
That is an interesting argument. A recalcitrant employer must not be troubled by paying a fee, but in many cases a dismissed employee must fork out with a fee that is disproportionate to the claim.
I mentioned immigration cases. Again, I welcome the fact that the Government do not propose to increase the fees, but already immigration judges report very high levels of unrepresented applicants, contrary to the impression given by the official statistics. The latter were questioned in a letter to Michael Gove by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association in 2015. Litigants in immigration tribunals will often suffer the additional difficulty of being unable to speak English.
The Government have been pressed time and again to review the working of LASPO but so far have resolutely resisted, and insist that they will do so only after five years of the Act’s operation. Given the scale of concerns and the time that such a review will take, why will the Government not now set a review in train, at least in respect of the most contentious areas?
I conclude with three further short points. The first is to remind the House that the Government’s proposals on the increase of the small claims limit is likely to engender still more problems for would-be litigants and a further depletion of qualified lawyers willing to undertake cases.
The second is that the closure of courts imposes additional costs on parties who now have to travel to have their cases heard.
Thirdly, I commend the work of the Public Support Unit, which has been mentioned today, whose staff and volunteers do valiant work in non-legal support of litigants in person as they encounter an unfamiliar and daunting experience in the 13 court centres that it supports. Will the Government at the very least help this organisation as it attempts to help those whose access to justice has been made ever more difficult by this Government and their coalition predecessor?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, for securing today’s debate on this important subject and to noble Lords for the valuable contributions they have made to the debate.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the justice system continues to be accessible to all, that it deals with disputes fairly and justly, and that it continues to work for all its users. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, referred to the matter of employment tribunals and employment tribunal fees. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, noted in his observations, that has been the subject of a review at the instance of the Government. That review, which was essentially to address the issue of applications in light of the fee matters, the impact of the reduction of fees on the employment tribunals, and indeed on the employment appeal tribunal, has made very good progress. We expect to publish the results of that review in the very near future. I regret that I cannot be more specific at this stage, but I hope the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, will accept that it is our intention to publish as soon as we reasonably can. That is anticipated to be in the near future.
It is appreciated that the number of employment tribunals has reduced since the introduction of fees, but I note that the introduction of fees was coincidental with the development of the mediation services in the context of employment applications. Therefore, one cannot simply attribute any reduction to fees being introduced in that respect. It would not be appropriate for me to anticipate the outcome of the review that has been carried out and which is to be published in the near future.
As I said, I would not want to anticipate the outcome of the review, and we will look at the matter in light of that review once it is published.
I turn for a moment away from employment tribunals to the matter of the property law issues raised by the noble Baroness in her opening speech. It is necessary to remember that when we look at the matter of cost, it is not just fees or legal costs that may be incurred in the litigation. There is also the matter of recovery of costs in that context. In that area considerable progress has been made, particularly with regard to applications to the property chamber.
As noble Lords will be aware, provision had already been made with regard to preventing landlords, in some instances at least, from recovering costs from the tribunal by way of service charges against leaseholders. That will be extended by virtue of Section 131 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which will also endeavour to prevent landlords recovering such costs by way of administrative charges, so steps are being taken to try to limit the cost liability of those who have regard to these tribunals and courts. The noble Baroness also expressed some concern regarding the operation of cost awards in the property chamber. Of course, in general, parties meet their own costs of litigating in the tribunal system even when they are successful in a claim, although there are some exceptions to that in the procedural rules.
As the noble Baroness noted, there was a cap of £500 in respect of the cost rules of the property chamber, although I understand that that was rarely used. The Tribunal Procedure Committee has noted that there is concern about the removal of that cap, and it intends to run a consultation to seek views on whether to reintroduce a cap for costs for unreasonable conduct in the residential property and leasehold cases and, if such a cap is to be reintroduced, to address the question of the level at which it should be set. Again, in that regard some progress has been made, and I hope to report further in due course.
The noble Baroness referred to those appellants who do not have legal representation when they come to the tribunals and courts. Appellants using the tribunal system are not required to be legally represented and tribunals are characterised by an approach that is deliberately less formal than is generally found in the courts. The tribunal panel members themselves, as the noble Baroness noted, are trained to assist unrepresented parties by helping them to frame the way in which they present their case to the tribunal.
Of course, this issue is dealt with differently in the courts, but in November 2014 the support strategy for litigants in person was launched. This involves work by a range of partners across the sector to improve the experience of vulnerable litigants in person in three fundamental ways. The first is providing online and self-help resources, and making sure that those who need them know where they are and how to access them, a point raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. The second is providing practical and emotional support. The third is providing access to free or affordable legal advice and representation wherever possible. Any legal proceedings are likely to be stressful, which is particularly the case in matters concerning families and children—one could not doubt that—but there is support for those who become involved in these proceedings.
I shall move on to the more general issue of costs. We have to address the fact that the cost of our courts and tribunals has to be met in some form or other. The Ministry of Justice is not a protected department and it has a very challenging financial settlement. We must reduce annual spending by 15% in real terms—about £1 billion—by 2019-20.
Achieving that scale of financial saving inevitably requires difficult and tough decisions. We need to look at every area of the department’s spending and there can be no exceptions for tribunals. I hope that noble Lords will recognise that, to ensure that they are properly funded and that access to justice is protected, increases to some court fees are required. The cost of our court and tribunal system to the taxpayer is unsustainably high and it must be right that those who use the system pay more to relieve that burden. However, Parliament has granted, through the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a power that allows the Government to set court and tribunal fees at a level above the cost of the service. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, made reference to that and I acknowledge it.
The income from those fees must be used to fund an efficient and effective system of courts and tribunals. When setting fees, the Lord Chancellor must have regard to a number of factors including the need to preserve access to justice. In respect of tribunal fees, the Government firmly believe it is right to ask users of the service to make a contribution to the cost of providing it. Reference has been made to the property tribunal: I note that the fees there are set at a level below the actual cost incurred, not above it nor even equal to it. The help with fees scheme exists to help those who cannot afford to pay, and the Lord Chancellor has the power to remit fees in exceptional circumstances. Specifically, for example, in the property chamber of the First-tier Tribunal, a new fee structure was introduced on 25 July 2016 to simplify matters: a single-issue fee of £100—hardly an insurmountable burden for a leaseholder—with a further fee of £200 for a review of an application.
We have to see all that against the background of proposals to modernise our whole court and tribunal system. The noble Lord, Lord Low, referred to the Briggs report and to the Government having decided to address that and review how they can take forward digitisation of the whole court process. The removal of paper and the streamlining of case management, wherever they can be achieved, are immediate goals of the present Government. Proposals are coming forward quite imminently to address the digitisation process. It will take time—years—to fully implement that sort of proposal, but we have begun that task, which will immeasurably improve the whole matter of access to justice. It will demystify the court process and, we hope, allow those who do not have legal representation to understand how to apply to and proceed through the courts in order to vindicate rights and to seek and secure justice. That extends to all those who may be vulnerable or in difficulty and who feel they have a just claim.
Ultimately, these changes will deliver swifter justice. Our wider reforms underline a guiding principle that our justice system must be proportionate and accessible to everyone. That means members of the public, legal professionals, witnesses, litigants, the vulnerable, victims of crime, and the judiciary itself.