Increasing court fees to pay for legal system 'smacks of the state selling justice', says Bar Council chair

Chantal-Aimée Doerries complains of a 'growing trend that perhaps views justice as a commodity'

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Increasing court fees to pay for the legal system “smacks of the state selling justice”, one of the country’s top barristers has told MPs, in the latest attack on the Government’s reforms to court funding. 

Chantal-Aimée Doerries, chair of the Bar Council, said the Government’s strategy of cutting state spending on the courts and tribunals system and shifting the cost to those who use the courts represented a “growing trend that perhaps views justice as a commodity”.

A range of court and tribunal fees – including for employment and immigration cases - were increased by the Coalition government, and ministers recently completed a consultation on further fee hikes, including increases in civil court fees and those for divorce.

Giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee Ms Doerries said that the Bar Council accepted that some costs should be levied from individuals and companies, but warned against a “fundamental” shift from state-funded courts, to courts funded by fees. 

“There is an obligation on the state to provide an accessible and functioning justice system and there seems to be at the moment a growing trend that perhaps views justice as a commodity, something which somebody chooses to use rather than actually a fundamental right within a functioning democracy,” she said. 

“Having just had the year of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta it smacks really of the state selling justice,” she added. 

“I know that that sounds harsh but in essence that is what the proposals do in relation to enhanced fees.”

Ms Doerries also echoed warnings from senior judges, who said last month that increases in court fees were driving people away from using the justice system. She said the effect might also be seen in small and medium-sized businesses which could find themselves significantly out of pocket when making claims through the courts. 

Appearing before the same committee last month, Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls, said that increases to court fees had been rushed through to plug a £100m gap in the Ministry of Justice’s finances. 

Shailesh Vara, the courts and legal aid minister, told MPs that the courts and tribunals system had to “play its part” in improving Government finances. 

He also refused to confirm whether the most controversial of the Government’s enhanced fees – the criminal courts charge – had been permanently scrapped. 

The criminal courts charge – which required defendants who plead guilty to any offence to pay a flat charge of £150 towards the cost of their prosecution, rising to £1,000 if they pleaded not guilty but lost their case – attracted a storm of criticism and was suspended before Christmas by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, following a campaign spearheaded by The Independent.

Asked whether the charge could return in any form, Mr Vara did not rule it out, saying the question would be considered as part of a wider review into all court fees. 

Responding to criticisms that the courts system should be chiefly funded by the state, not by fees, he told MPs: “What we are trying to do is ensure there is access to justice for all of our citizens. That means having a courts and tribunal system that is affordable, sustainable and fit for purpose. 

“We need to pay for that. Therefore I see no reasons why, if it is possible there can be a fee raised in one area that helps with the greater good of justice, that we cannot use that fee to make sure that other parts of the courts and tribunal system work as we want them to.”

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