Considered in Grand Committee
This instrument aligns the fees for online and paper civil money and possession claims. The instrument applies to fees in the civil courts of England and Wales and will come into force in May 2021.
First, I shall say a word or two about the purpose of the instrument. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service plays an essential role in our society. Courts and tribunals provide a place where people can vindicate their rights and where the rule of law is upheld, and which is accessible to all who need it. I am proud to say that our courts and tribunals deliver a world-class justice system which is admired by all. The people it serves interact with it at some of the most difficult times of their lives and they trust it to be fair and effective.
For many years, the service has run on the principle that those who use courts and tribunals should pay the full cost of the service they receive, if they can afford to do so. I am sure that the Committee will agree that fees are a reasonable means of ensuring an effective and efficient justice system that is neither solely nor entirely sustained by contributions from the taxpayer. Fees are the main source of direct income for courts and tribunals, and the instrument I am submitting to the attention of the Committee today will further aid this endeavour.
Civil money and possession claims, which are the type of claims affected by this instrument, are regulated by the Civil Proceedings Fees Order 2008. Currently, the fees order offers lower fees, and some exemptions, for civil money and possession claims submitted via online platforms, with a higher fee payable for the same claims issued via the paper route. The instrument before us today removes the online discount and thus aligns the online fees with the paper fees which are currently charged in the Civil Proceedings Fees Order. More specifically, this instrument aligns fees for users of the County Court Business Centre, Money Claim Online, Possession Claim Online and online civil money claims.
Aligning these fees will create a single fee structure which will result in one, consolidated fee, payable by both online and paper users. In doing so, it will also provide much-needed additional funding to our courts and tribunals service. The need to ensure that courts and tribunals continue to perform efficiently and effectively is compounded by the challenges we are facing due to the pandemic.
This, therefore, is the right time to consolidate these fees. The online services were first introduced 20 years ago, in 2001, as part of the Government’s ambitious plans to digitise the service and contribute towards improved performance and increased functionality, while streamlining existing processes. To encourage uptake of what was then a new digitised system, a number of fee discounts for the online processes were introduced. They have therefore been enjoyed by users for many years. Users who issue bulk claims have had a discount on the issue fees since 2004, fees for claims issued via Possession Claim Online have been discounted since 2006, and fees for claims issued via Money Claim Online have been discounted since 2015.
I am pleased to say that the Government’s efforts have paid off. In 2018-19 online applications for civil and possession claims accounted for just under 90% of all claims up to the value of £100,000. So, the modern service is allowing 90% of users to enjoy a seamless journey from lodging a claim right through to settling the dispute as simply as possible. As part of this, users have the opportunity to access mediation as part of efforts to support more proportionate and appropriate dispute resolution.
The Committee will need no reminder from me of the Lord Chancellor’s personal and statutory duty to protect access to justice. The Government remain committed to upholding this fundamental principle, so we must provide an effective and efficient justice system that works for everyone. That means it has to be funded appropriately.
Removing the online discount does not infringe the principle of access to justice. Paper users are already paying a higher fee, and generally those individuals are over-represented among groups with protected characteristics. So, while we want the system to be funded effectively, we also want to build a fairer system that puts neither paper nor online users at a disadvantage.
The Committee should be familiar with the fees we are debating. They are enhanced fees, meaning that they are set above the cost of the service. Such fees can be set only with explicit parliamentary approval, following the introduction of the “enhanced power” provision in Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. The enhanced power is therefore used in a judicious and limited manner, because most fees in courts and tribunals are set not under the enhanced power but at or even below the cost of providing the service.
The income raised from enhanced fees such as these enables us to cross-subsidise other parts of the courts and tribunals system. That enables us to ensure access to justice for everybody. We do so to protect the most vulnerable members of society. This is not an exhaustive list, but, for example, no fees are now charged for applications for non-molestation orders, occupation orders, forced marriage protection orders or female genital mutilation orders—or for cases before the First-tier Tribunal concerning mental health.
Despite the provision of these enhanced fees, the income currently received from fees covers less than half the costs of running the courts and tribunals. In 2019-20 there was a net fee income of £724 million, against running costs of about £2 billion. That significant gap in funding should highlight for the Committee why the fee increase that this instrument introduces is appropriate, balanced and fair.
Of course, I do not claim that the additional income generated by these proposals will, alone, fill the gap. But it will certainly help the justice system to be better equipped for the many challenges it faces and will supplement the additional funding already being provided by the Government to aid Covid-19 recovery.
I should emphasise that for the vast majority of fees affected by this instrument, the proposed increase is generally modest, ranging from about £10 to £45—and every pound can be reinvested in our ambitious plan for the future of the Courts and Tribunals Service. That is in addition to the £377 million for the criminal justice system in England and Wales, including £275 million to manage the downstream impact of 20,000 additional police officers and to reduce backlogs caused by Covid-19 in the Crown Courts. There is also an investment of £76 million to increase family court and employment tribunal capacity to reduce backlog, £43 million to ensure courts and prisons remain Covid-safe, and £105 million for improvements to the court estate.
The Committee will be aware of the unprecedented challenges that this country has faced because of Covid-19. However, it is important—indeed, critical—to ensure that our world-class justice system operates efficiently and effectively, while minimising the cost to the taxpayer. This instrument allows us to do more work to achieve that aim. It aligns fees for civil money and possession claims, contributes towards the funding of courts and tribunals, and ensures that the existing civil fee structure is both fair and consistent. I therefore commend these fee changes to the Committee.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I have joined the Grand Committee’s consideration of this instrument this afternoon as much to learn as to contribute. Given the expertise of those few Members online, I am hopeful that I will be more enlightened at the end of this discussion than I am now at the beginning of it.
I very much appreciate the importance of raising the funds necessary to enhance the tribunal and court system. I understand entirely from the explanation given of the £724 million that has been raised towards the £2 billion total cost of the process. However, I am unclear about the exact cost of this particular process—that is, the procedure in relation to the restriction of funds and property. I would be really grateful if the Minister could clarify this small point for me in his reply. He was good enough to indicate that more money is raised from these charges than the cost of the service itself.
I understand why the list of tribunal activities that the Minister gave us in his earlier contribution should be free. It seems right that the taxpayer should pick up those particular examples because, of course, they relate to very personal issues, such as mental health issues, that require us as a community to fund them. However, it appears that what is actually happening is we are asking those who use the procedure that we are discussing this afternoon to enhance payments in order to subsidise precisely those kinds of activities. It would therefore be useful to know the true cost of this particular element of the courts and tribunals system and of the procedure that we are discussing.
I have no objection to aligning the fee between paper and online in the way that has been described, although clearly it will be an increase for the vast majority of potential users compared with the situation today. It would be helpful to know just how much that additional contribution of between £9 million and £25 million, which will come in next year, will actually make given the cost of implementing the procedure as a whole.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has withdrawn so I call the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
My Lords, this is the sort of instrument to slip under the radar at the end of a Session. The proposal is to increase the fees for bringing money and possession claims, for the benefit of the Treasury.
It was a benefit to individuals, and to businesses both small and large, to commence proceedings by way of an online application. I can remember my days as an articled clerk when I made out the paperwork, physically took it to the registry of the High Court or the county court, handed it over the counter and payed the fees. Obviously, it is infinitely preferable to do all this online, not only for the poor old solicitor’s clerk but for the court staff in the registries up and down the country.
There must be an enormous saving in efficiency and time. It is not surprising that, as the Explanatory Notes made clear, 90% of claims are now launched online. To incentivise this increase in efficiency, fees were reduced for online applications, presumably still covering the reduced costs of filing. So there were, and are, two levels of fees: those for online applications, which are efficient and take less time, and those for paper applications in the old way, which obviously consume more time and resources.
One might have thought that in order to help, in particular, individuals and small businesses, who are the people most often chasing money from larger clients such as government departments, the Government would have equalled the fees by choosing the lower figure, but not at all; the watchword is “levelling up”. So this instrument is brought forward to make sure that individuals and small businesses pay more in order to pursue their claims. At a time when small businesses in particular are suffering greatly, many unlikely to survive the pandemic crisis, the Government are loading more expense upon them to the tune of up to an expected £25 million next year.
To add insult to injury, the note accompanying this instrument and the impact assessment proceed upon the curious premise that there is no impact at all on businesses and individuals because this is not an inevitable business expense. You can choose to pursue the money that you are owed—or recover the premises, if it is that sort of application—or, on the other hand, you can decide to do nothing. If you decide to do nothing then you do not have to pay any fees. That is the incredible argument for saying that there is no impact.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked a very pertinent question: what is the actual cost of the filing of these proceedings? I have other questions. What percentage of the stakeholders on the consultation that took place responded to say that they were in favour? How many said they were willing for the fees for the more efficient online commencement of proceedings to be raised to match the fees for the less efficient paper service? I hope the Minister will answer those questions.
My Lords, we on the Labour Benches accept that those who cannot access the internet for one reason or another should not have to pay more for the same service. Having accepted that, we note that there is a net increase above inflation for most users—that is, the 90% of users who currently access civil proceedings online.
We accept that HMCTS is running at a huge deficit and the Government must take action in the interests of justice to reduce that deficit. In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, gave the figures that are in the Explanatory Memorandum: in 2019-20 there was a net fee income of £724 million against £2 billion of running costs for HMCTS, and that gap in funding has to be paid for by the taxpayer.
The question that we have heard asked by both the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and my noble friend Lord Blunkett is about the likely overall impact of this change in fees. From my reading of the papers, the impact assessment claims that the alignment of the fees could save about £20 million per year. That saving in comparison to the massive deficit shows that it really is a drop in the ocean.
The problems faced by HMCTS are colossal and represent decades of underinvestment that have brought the system to its knees, with a record backlog to match. HMCTS has lost one-quarter of its budget in the last decade. Courts have been sold and sitting days have been slashed, and all this was happening long before Covid. It is the victims of crime who are paying the highest price for this negligence. While we support—or rather we will not oppose; I will phrase it like that—this increase in civil proceeding fees, we think there is a much larger problem to be addressed. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of how the larger funding problems will be addressed.
My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions to this short but important debate; anything to do with our justice system is important. Perhaps I may therefore pick up in turn the points made by noble Lords.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, asked about the principle of cross-subsidy and the amounts involved. I shall deal with each point in turn. The principle of cross-subsidy is in primary legislation; it was considered by Parliament as a matter of principle and considered correct for those who can pay more than the actual cost of the process to do so, so that other people can pay less than the actual cost of the service. So the principle of cross-subsidy is in primary legislation, as I have set out.
As to the figures involved, the Courts & Tribunals Service produces an annual report. The accounts for the year ending 31 March 2020 show that approximately £550 million of fee income was collected from court users in civil proceedings after fee remissions, whereas approximately £545 million was spent on civil jurisdiction, leaving a surplus overall of £4.9 million. Civil business as a whole—that is, civil and family jurisdictions together—showed a deficit of £80.1 million in the financial year, which was funded therefore by the general taxpayer. I shall look at the Official Report and, if I can provide the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, with any further detail on particular figures, I shall write to him and set it out and copy my letter to other noble Lords who spoke in this debate.
I turn to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. This provision is not being slipped “under the radar” at all. I have to say that I was a little surprised that the import of the noble Lord’s comments appeared to be that those who did not have internet access or capability should continue to pay more—more, indeed, than 90% of users of the service. I find that a remarkable proposition, but it is the necessary import of the approach that the noble Lord took. That is even more remarkable when one recalls, as I said when I opened this debate, that the paper group, if I can call them that, contains more people with protected characteristics proportionately than the online group. When one has 90% of people online, one has to level the fees.
The only real question is whether you move the online to the paper or the paper to the online. The position is this: were we to move paper to online, that would cost another £5 million in lost income to the service, which is another increase that the taxpayer would have to fund and a greater loss that the courts and tribunals would therefore be working under. Although I agree with the principle of equalising fees, one ought to equalise online to paper and not paper to online. The justification for a lower fee for online users, which was originally brought in to encourage people to go online, is, for the reasons I have set out, no longer present.
So far as the stakeholders are concerned, it is fair to say that a minority of respondents supported the proposal, but the main sticking point was the principle of cross-subsidisation in the first place. As I have said, that principle was established by Parliament in the Act that I mentioned and is therefore the legal background against which we operate.
Finally, on the, if I may respectfully say, more realistic contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, he will understand that I do not accept the adjectives he used about the Courts Service, but I certainly agree that, after Covid, we need to rebuild the Courts Service and ensure that people obtain in the courts and tribunals the sort of service they are entitled to expect. He focused on the victims of crime. While I do not minimise the issues which we have to deal with in the criminal justice system, I hope he will allow me to say that because this is a civil measure, I will not respond to those comments in detail today. I am sure we will have many opportunities in the Chamber and in Grand Committee to debate the criminal justice system, the Crown Courts and the magistrates’ courts, and I look forward to engaging with him—I am sure constructively—on those occasions. For today, the instrument before us focuses solely on civil justice and, for the reasons I have set out, it is a measure which is both necessary and proportionate. I therefore commend it to the Committee.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.20 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.