Courting controversy

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the Conservatives continuing attacks on access to justice

There is a biblical injunction which proclaims “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue”. To this the current government adds an addendum: “providing thou canst pay in advance a fee equal to or greater than would be required to ensure that the full cost or more  of court and tribunal  proceedings can be recovered for the benefit of the taxpayer”.

Yet access to justice is crucial to the rule of law, on which our country prides itself. Already eroded by savage cuts in legal aid, it now faces a new round of significant increases in fees. And what makes matters worse is how Ministry of Justice has handled the issue.

Last year, the government commissioned a review – including a report on the impact of its earlier imposition of substantial charges, which it said would be completed by end of 2015. The Justice Select Committee pointed out that in early October that the report was said by an official to “be in the hands of the Minister” (Shailesh Vara MP) and that “it was hoped that the Minister’s position would be known by the end of the year”.

A Freedom of Information request for a copy of the report was declined on 29 December, with the comment that “the review is currently underway and will report in due course”. Successive requests were made to the Minister in early February and late March, the latter seeking publication or at the least the supply of a copy in confidence – all without success.

But this is a sensitive and highly contentious area. There has been, in the Committee’s words, “a startling drop” – of 70% - in the number of applications as a result of the initial imposition of fees. The Committee concluded that the existing fee system “has had a significant adverse impact on access to justice for meritorious claims” – not least in relation to claims by pregnant women for detriment or dismissal. What confidence can we have therefore, in the range of new and increased fees imposed in other areas?

There is to be an increase from £410 to £550 in divorce proceedings. Given there is now no legal aid, this flat rate charge will impact relatively more harshly on less well-off petitioners, at what will of course be a time of acute emotional stress. The President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby accused the government of “putting up the fees until it becomes another poll tax on wheels”.

Even more objectionable is the astonishing increase of 600% in fees for the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, where the original proposal was 100%. This will effect some of the most vulnerable people and is likely, as the Law Society has pointed out, to lead to more people overstaying illegally and risking criminal prosecution. Even under the present system, in only 5600 cases were fees remitted out of 41,000 applications.

In addition, we have a 10% increase in fees for civil claims, increases in fees levied in other tribunals and the particularly invidious increase in the fees for judicial review proceedings, where the government itself might well be the defendant.

The government’s record over access to justice, and stretching back to the Coalition period, has favoured the interests of the powerful – from employers to insurance companies. Moves towards fixed costs in civil claims and clinical negligence cases echo the same approach. So, it will be interesting to see whether new Prime Minister Theresa May’s claims for compassionate conservatism translate into action, with justice policies providing an early test.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @jeremybeecham

Published 20th July 2016

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