Low-paid to get court 'entrance' fee refunds

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The Independent Online
Thousands of people on low incomes got the go-ahead for refunds of court "entrance" fees yesterday after the Government swiftly bowed to last Friday's High Court ruling that new regulations were unlawful.

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, said that he would not attempt to appeal the decision and would immediately make new orders restoring the exemption from fees for people on income support, and restoring the right of others of limited means to apply for reductions or remissions.

The orders will replace those parts of rules introduced on 15 January but declared invalid by the court. Anyone who would have been eligible for exemption or remission but for the changes will be eligible for a refund.

Mr Justice Laws said in last week's test case that the effect of the new rules was to "bar absolutely" many people from seeking justice from the courts in a wide-ranging variety of situations.

"The right to a fair trial, which of necessity imports the right of access to the court, is as near to an absolute right as any I can envisage," he said.

The case, brought by an Essex businessman, John Witham, related only to the High Court, but Lord Mackay went further yesterday, bringing county and family-court proceedings within the scope of the order.

But a spokeswoman said he "remains concerned about the potential injustice where litigants in person, who are exempted or remitted from court fees, bring unjustified actions against defendants who must then pay to defend themselves with no prospect of recovering their costs.

"This judgment implies that this must be a matter for Parliament to regulate and the Lord Chancellor will consider it further in that light."

Nothing in the judgment or the new orders will affect the steep rises in court fees introduced by the rules, which raised the High Court fee from pounds 100 to between pounds 120 and pounds 500 and those in other civil cases from between 50 and 150 per cent.