Court Fees

– in the House of Lords at 2:49 pm on 14 November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench 2:49, 14 November 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, since 1992, they have sought the approval of Parliament for their decision to recover from litigants in civil cases the full costs of the proceedings, including, inter alia, the provision of judges' salaries and pensions and court buildings; and, if so, when and how.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it has been the policy of successive governments, at least since the 1920s, that the costs of court administration in civil cases should be defrayed by litigants' fees. Over time, the range of costs taken into account when setting fees has varied. In 1992, the government of the day decided that, in line with general government fee-charging policy, court fees in civil cases should be set to reflect the full cost of providing the service, with the exception of those areas where there is some subsidy. That meant including, for the first time, the salaries of the full-time senior judiciary—circuit judges and above—paid direct from the Consolidated Fund. That decision was not subject to consultation.

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench

My Lords, I have three questions for my noble and learned friend. They grow progressively shorter—the last one is very short indeed. First, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recall that the former Lord Chief Justice and the current Lord Chief Justice, both acting on behalf of the Civil Justice Council and the civil justice review, raised strong objections to the civil courts making that recovery on two grounds: first, there was a failure to recognise the collective benefit in the administration of civil justice and, secondly, it seriously weakened access to justice?

Secondly, does the Minister recall the decision of the Divisional Court in 1998—Queen's Bench 575, Queen v. Lord Chancellor, Ex parte Witham—in which, in a very full reserved judgment, Mr Justice Laws said:

"Access to the courts is a constitutional right; it can only be denied by the government if it persuades Parliament to pass legislation which specifically—in effect by express provision—permits the executive to turn people away from the court door"?

My final question—

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, with respect, the Companion says that noble Lords should ask two questions. We should now move on and hear the two answers.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor

My Lords, on the first question, whether I recall what the Lord Chief Justice and the former Lord Chief Justice said: yes, I do. The issue that has to be addressed is a balance between charging those who use the civil courts reasonable fees and ensuring that those who cannot afford them are not denied access to justice. We seek to do that by having reasonable levels of fees and, at the same time, providing subsidy for people who would otherwise not be able to come to court. We are consulting on increases in court fees and those very issues will be considered in the course of the consultation. Secondly, do I recall the case in 1998? Yes, I do.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Shadow Lord Chancellor, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs), Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, the Question concerns parliamentary scrutiny. The principle that court fees should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, at least in limited cases, was recognised by Section 92 of the Courts Act 2003. Is it not now time that that principle was made of general application, particularly in view of the fact that excessive court fees are a serious threat to access to justice?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor

My Lords, a balance has to be struck. There should be widespread consultation; there should be complete openness on proposals to increase fees. Ultimately, the principle has been established that where a party has used the civil courts—for example, a large commercial organisation—there is nothing wrong in principle in charging it for that.

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps I may squeak in my third question. Why has Parliament been given no opportunity to debate this matter?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there is currently consultation in relation to whether, and if so by how much, the fees should be raised. It is only after that consultation that the question of parliamentary scrutiny would arise.