The impact of successive court and tribunal fee increases on access to justice must be assessed by ministers before they reject proposals from legal experts for fee reductions or reversals, the Law Society has urged.
The Law Society’s comments follow the government’s response to the Justice Select Committee (JSC) report on fee increases.
Law Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘Punitive courts and tribunals fee increases are denying justice to citizens and businesses. The government must heed the views of experts from the legal profession and beyond and urgently assess the impact of fee increases on access to justice.
‘Recent fee increases should be reversed pending a proper assessment of their effect on access to justice.
‘Our justice system is a public service that underpins democratic society. While it is not unreasonable to ask people to contribute to the costs of the courts they use, each of us should be able to assert and protect our rights in those courts should the need arise.
‘For this to hold true for everyone regardless of wealth, the principle of equal access to justice must prevail over generating income when it comes to setting court and tribunal fees.
‘There is a growing imbalance created by fee increases that places the courts out of reach for many small businesses and all but the wealthiest individuals in society. This puts those on lower incomes at an unfair disadvantage in a justice system that increasingly favours the better resourced.’
Immigration tribunal fee increases of more than 500 per cent will have a chilling effect on people’s ability to pursue appeals. This represents a serious denial of justice, particularly in an area where administrative decisions are frequently incorrect and there is a high success rate on appeal.
Ministry of Justice figures show that employment tribunal cases have fallen by 70 per cent since fees increased. The government says that when deciding to increase immigration and asylum tribunal fees it ‘does not mean that we have not taken the impact of employment tribunals and other fees into account’, but ministers have yet to publish a long overdue review of the impact of employment fee increases so it is not clear what correlation has been drawn between the two areas.
Robert Bourns concluded: ‘Solicitors, who support people through court cases that have profound effects on their lives, are absolutely clear that court fee increases severely limit access to justice, pricing ordinary people and many businesses out of the courts.
‘The court fee increases that have now been adopted were opposed by 90 per cent of respondents to the government consultation, making a mockery of the consultation process, and further questioned by the Justice Select Committee.’