Courts: Costs

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 15th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench 3:00 pm, 15th February 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will accept the recommendation of the Civil Justice Council in its response of 17 November 2005 to the Department for Constitutional Affairs for a fundamental review of the policy to charge litigants in the civil courts the total costs of running those courts less fee exemptions and remissions.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, our policy remains that court fees should be set to reflect the cost of the service provided. It is right that, where they can afford to do so, litigants using the civil courts, rather than the taxpayer, should meet the cost. I am conducting a review of exemptions and remissions to ensure consistent operation and adequate protection for access to justice.

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench

My Lords, it is common ground that the Civil Justice Council is there as a watchdog over the civil courts and that in the past the former Chief Justice and the Chief Justice before him have combined with the council and the Council of Judges to condemn the policy that has just been mentioned.

I should make it clear that this is not a frontal attack on the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, Dieu soit merci; it is a frontal attack on that most powerful member of the executive, the Revenue. The Revenue has decreed that full costs incurred in the civil courts should be recovered. It is what has been colloquially known as the cream of the office cat. Would your Lordships not agree that it is totally wrong and has been condemned on the basis that it interferes with that vital concept of access to justice? Will the noble Baroness say how she can fit the two in together?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the Civil Justice Council, with which I have had the pleasure of working closely. The concept of full cost recovery in one sense misleads us because the taxpayer makes a significant contribution—in 2004–05, nearly £104 million or about 23 per cent of the total costs involved. I repeat what I said at the beginning: we believe that the policy that we are pursuing is appropriate and correct and that it ensures, alongside the issues of remission, that those who need access to justice get it.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs), Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the consultation paper suggests that the cost of modernisation of the Court Service will be paid for, at least to a considerable degree, by fees? Is it right that today's litigant should pay for investment in IT and technology for the future?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, it is important that we consider the modernisation of our court system, including a fundamentally important part of that—the use of new technology. It is appropriate that, when looking at how best to fund that, we bear in mind not only the system that we have for the present but the system that we have for the future. In that sense, the measure is appropriate.

Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench

My Lords, would the Minister be kind enough to tell me whether fees will be put towards the costs of setting up the new Supreme Court? Is that being taken into account in the full cost recovery questions that she has considered? On this occasion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, did not do justice to the strength of the concern about the issue, which, I am sure the Minister will agree, is widespread among the judiciary, as he omitted to mention that my successor is equally concerned about costs.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, issues to do with the Supreme Court have been debated in your Lordships' House, and I will write to the noble and learned Lord to set out precisely the basis for the funding for the court. The noble and learned Lord will know well—he has been involved in it—the importance of making sure that we have that fully covered.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and I are well aware of the strength of feeling in the judiciary. We listened carefully during the consultation and made changes as a consequence of some of the representations that were made to us. We are a listening government and a listening department.

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench

My Lords, no one has made reference to the fact that the provision of a civil litigation system is in the public interest, as it provides a civilised way of effectively dealing with disputes. It goes beyond the ordinary question of what the litigant gains; the public make a substantial gain. Accordingly, there should be a contribution from general taxation, and costs should not be left solely to the litigant to cover, particularly as some of the cases are decided for the general benefit and good of society.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, as I indicated in my earlier response, the taxpayer makes a significant contribution. In 2004–05, the taxpayer paid 23 per cent of the cost; I agree in that respect with the noble and learned Lord. I also agree that it is important that we make sure that people have access to justice. Hence, as I indicated, I am looking at exemptions and remissions to ensure that we have got that right for those who need that additional support.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative

My Lords, bearing in mind the Minister's reply to the noble and learned Lord, do the Government have a standard, benchmark percentage of the total cost of the civil courts that it is deemed appropriate for litigants to pay? How do the Government arrive at what is a reasonable balance?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I am conscious of time. The Government look carefully at how we bring together all our work in the civil courts. The noble Lord will know that a great deal has gone on in recent times to look at the modernisation of the estates to ensure that we support our judiciary appropriately and that we approach all those seeking justice in the right manner. I will write to the noble Lord and set out some of the detail, as I do not wish to take your Lordships' time at this point.