Costs of civil actions to double

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Government-backed doubling of court costs for people involved in civil disputes was condemned as "thoroughly object- ionable and reprehensible" yesterday by the head of the civil justice system.

Sir Richard Scott said there was a danger that the policy, part of a plan to make civil justice pay for itself, would deter people from using the courts. But people could not take the law into their own hands, which would cause "chaos", he added.

The increases of up to 150 per cent, which come into force on Wednesday, affect fees for all civil court actions, from divorce to debt recovery, rents and disputes between neighbours.

The rises are the latest in a four-year drive to meet the costs of running civil courts. Some fees will be almost four times what they were 18 months ago, and some services used to be free.

Sir Richard, head of the High Court Chancery division, said he had "no doubt" that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, had "no alternative but to increase court fees because of Treasury constraints on his budget".

But of the danger of people being deterred from using the courts, he said: "Access to justice requires that justice should be reasonably accessible without excessive cost. Civil proceedings are already very expensive.

Sir Richard said people could not "go and demand rents with threats", and could not solve boundary disputes by simply pulling up a fence.

The new rises are intended to raise the fee income from court users to pounds 310m a year - almost the full cost of running civil courts.

The fee for lodging trial papers and asking for a date in a county court, which was free until the 1980s, doubles from pounds 50 to pounds 100. The cost of a divorce petition, which was pounds 40 18 months ago, rises from pounds 80 to pounds 150.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department, said: "It has been Government policy since 1992 that the costs of the civil justice system should be recovered from court fees. This is the final stage in this. People who are less well-off will still have their fees paid from the legal aid fund. Courts have discretion to exempt people from fees in particular cases."