My Lords, the title is instructive: “Non-contentious”. The purpose of the draft order before us today is to implement a new, more progressive banded structure of fees for a grant of representation, commonly known as a grant of probate. The banded fees relate to the value of the estate. These new fees come under the category of “enhanced fees” and noble Lords may be aware that in Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, Parliament has given the Lord Chancellor the power to set certain court and tribunal fees above the cost of providing the service. The income generated by these enhanced fees must be used to fund an efficient and effective system of courts and tribunals.
Noble Lords will recognise the importance of a fair and functional justice system not only to court users but to society as a whole. The decisions made in the courts and tribunals convict the guilty, protect the innocent and help ordinary people take back control of their lives. This Government are committed to providing a world-class courts and tribunals system that supports victims and vulnerable people, is easy for ordinary people to use and maintains access to justice for all.
However, such a system requires proper funding. It has long been the case that users of our courts system contribute towards its costs, and we believe that this remains both relevant and reasonable as it reduces the burden on other taxpayers. Crucially, by asking those who use the courts to pay more where they can afford to do so, we are able to fund areas where we charge no fees to vulnerable victims and users: for example, for domestic violence and non-molestation orders, and for cases before the First-tier Tribunal concerning mental health.
The Government are investing £1 billion to modernise and upgrade the courts system so that it works even better for everyone, including victims, witnesses, litigants, judges and legal professionals. This includes introducing changes to our probate service, which offers an important, valuable and supportive service to those who are bereaved. The change to the probate service will aim to reduce the burden on those who are applying for a grant of probate. Some examples of how we are doing this include providing the public or their representatives with the option to initiate cases online; enabling applicants to pay more conveniently; and replacing the swearing of an oath with an online statement of truth.
In 2017-18 the running costs of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service were £1.8 billion. We recovered only £710 million of that in fee income. That position is unsustainable, and it is right that we look to the users of that service to contribute more. Parliament understood the importance and value of our world-leading justice system and the financial pressure that the courts and tribunals service faces, which is why it passed the power in the 2014 Act to which I referred a moment ago. It is under this power that the Government have laid this draft order.
The order introduces a new fairer banded structure for probate fees. The fee payable is no longer a flat fee but instead relates to the value of the estate—a more progressive proposal. The new fees are fair and proportionate. Under the new structure, we are raising the threshold below which no fee is payable from £5,000 to £50,000, so that more modest estates are protected. That will lift around an additional 25,000 estates per year out of having to pay fees altogether. Overall, more than half of all estates will pay nothing, either because they are exempt or because they do not require a grant of probate. For those which pay, around 80% of estates will pay £750 or less. Moreover, the new model will mean that the revised fees will never be more than 0.5% of the value of the estate.
As noble Lords will know, the previous Government initially announced their plans to introduce enhanced probate fees on
Various criticisms were made of the previous order, and the Government looked very closely at these in deciding to reintroduce changes to probate fees. These concerns were centred largely on the level of fees rather than on the principle of a banded structure. The criticisms were that the fees were excessive. The Government accept this point and the revised fee scheme we are introducing has reduced fees payable at all bands. The highest fee payable has reduced from £20,000 under the previous proposal to £6,000 under this proposal. The new banded fee structure does not amend the underlying policy rationale and will retain the same progressive banded structure as the earlier proposal, in which the fee payable relates to the value of the estate. This represents a fair and proportionate fee payable for obtaining a grant of probate.
I acknowledge that the JCSI has drawn the attention of the House to this order, and the SLSC also reported concerns. I have also noted the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, in his amendment, which are related to the SLSC report. Furthermore, I acknowledge the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which echoes points raised by the JCSI. I will therefore address these points in turn, which I hope will outline clearly the Government’s position in relation to these arguments.
The JCSI reported the draft SI for doubtful vires and unexpected use of powers, as it felt that the new fees amounted to a tax and questioned whether the imposition of this level of fees was anticipated when the primary power was approved. It went on to argue that the basic premise of a fee is directly related to the cost of the service. The SLSC also made these points but went further, arguing that, as a result of the savings envisaged as part of delivering a reformed probate service, the fees were disproportionate. I must respectfully disagree with both committees.
Section 180 gives the Lord Chancellor the explicit authority to impose enhanced fees to,
“prescribe a fee of an amount which is intended to exceed the cost of anything in respect of which the fee is charged”,
and that is what this order seeks to do. In doing so, the Lord Chancellor must have regard to, among other factors,
“the financial position of the courts and tribunals for which the Lord Chancellor is responsible, including in particular any costs incurred by those courts and tribunals that are not being met by current fee income”.
The Act is also clear that any income from these fees,
“must be used to finance an efficient and effective system of courts and tribunals”.
These provisions clearly demonstrate Parliament’s intention that the Lord Chancellor should be able to set fees above cost in one part of the system to subsidise other parts of that system, and to maintain the effective operation of the system as a whole.
The JCSI has suggested that the concept of a fee is subject to inherent limitations in relation to the service for which it is charged. Again, we do not accept this. The specific legislative provision in Section 180 of the 2014 Act breaks the link between the cost of the service and the fee that may be charged. This was clearly the intention of Parliament in making such a provision. The proposals in the order are consistent with the primary power and the assurances given to Parliament at the time the Bill was considered. This is not the first time that the Government have sought to introduce enhanced fees or fees which relate to the value of the issues at stake—for example, fees for certain civil money claims. For these reasons, we do not consider that the draft probate fees order is an unexpected use of the Section 180 power. We are using it in exactly the way that Parliament intended.
Finally, I have made it clear that, as the fee is not tied to the cost of the service under the enhanced fee powers, I disagree with the idea that the fee changes are disproportionate, in light of reform to the probate service which aims to make the service more efficient. As we have already made clear, users will experience a better system which has benefited from significant investment from the taxpayer. It is still right that the additional income is used to cross-subsidise in other areas where vulnerable users and victims are charged either no fee or a nominal fee.
More specifically, we have significantly reduced the fees at all levels compared to our previous proposal, which I believe responds to concerns about what fee is proportionate. We are clear that this is an application fee for a specific service: to obtain a grant of representation to deal with a person’s estate. This is distinct from general taxation, which is paid into a consolidated fund held by HM Treasury. Charging fees is justified as a way of funding our courts system to provide access to justice, which the Government are committed to maintaining.
I have already reminded your Lordships’ House that the Lord Chancellor, when setting these fees, is required to have regard to the financial position of the courts and tribunals. Another factor that must be considered is the principle that access to the courts should not be denied. In considering this fundamental principle of access to the courts, we have been careful to ensure that nobody will find themselves unable to apply for a grant of probate on account of the fee. These fees will never be unaffordable. The probate fee and any reasonable expenses are recoverable from the estate and determined by the value of that estate, so the executor will not be permanently out of pocket. Any difficulty in paying the fee will, by definition, be one of cash flow rather than affordability. I would nevertheless like to take this opportunity to set out the safeguards in place to support executors.
In most cases, we believe that the executor will be able to access funds in the estate to pay the fee—including, for example, bank accounts and savings belonging to the estate. HMRC data indicates that the average estate is around 25% cash, and the fee will never be more than 0.5% of the value of the estate.
We have been working with UK Finance, the Building Societies Association and the Money Advice Service. The industry has set out bereavement principles to encourage its members to support the bereaved and allow necessary payments to be made where it is possible to do so within the law. Furthermore, where an executor is not successful initially in accessing funds from a bank or building society account, the probate service is willing to write to the relevant institution to provide reassurance that the assets are needed to pay the fee. Other avenues of funding will also be available, including a personal or executor’s loan. In those cases where executors are unable to take advantage of any of these options, they can apply for a limited grant of probate to provide them with partial access to specific assets of the estate for the sole purpose of paying the fee. This application would not attract an additional fee.
We are confident that these fees will never be unaffordable, and it would be wrong to exempt certain estates from the fees based purely on the executor’s cash flow situation, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab. That is why the order also removes probate fees from the statutory help with fees remission scheme—because in normal circumstances fee remissions will not be necessary or justified. There is, however, a safety net for those rare cases that do not fall into the above categories. We have retained the Lord Chancellor’s power to offer a fee remission in exceptional circumstances, where the executor has exhausted all other options to pay the fee and would suffer undue financial hardship as a result. We intend to publish guidance on ways to pay for probate fees in which we intend to outline all the options for financial support. We are currently working with external stakeholders to ensure that this guidance is effective, and will publish it before any fees are changed.
I maintain that the legislation and Parliament’s intent is clear. Enhanced fees are appropriate to ensure the funding of an efficient and effective courts and tribunals system by allowing cross-subsidisation. Access to justice allows for people to defend and enforce their rights, and this can be maintained only if the overall system is sustained with appropriate resourcing. These new fees are progressive and proportionate and will help to provide a stable financial footing for the courts and tribunals service. I am clear that these fees will never be unaffordable and are paid for a service received from the courts service. I beg to move.
Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to approve the draft Order, because it would be an abuse of the fee-levying power, since the proposed increased fees substantially exceed the cost involved in making grants of probate and would amount to a tax, which should only be introduced, if at all, by primary legislation.”
My Lords, my amendment is fatal, and I do not move it lightly. The Government propose to increase fees for probate applications from the current flat rate of £215 for individuals or £155 for solicitors’ applications on all estates worth £5,000 by introducing a sliding scale of fees rising from £250 to £6,000 on all estates worth £50,000 or more. The fee is to be banded with a maximum £6,000 fee kicking in at £2 million. These are dramatic increases. According to the impact assessment, the existing fees reflect average administrations costs. That is why a solicitor’s application costs less than an individual’s application, simply because it costs less to administer. For estates above £2 million, the increase is twenty-eightfold. Just that increase would be 27 times the actual cost of administration. The Government expect these so-called enhanced fees to generate a profit of £145 million a year, rising as estate values increase.
The noble and learned Lord relied in his all-Peers letter and relies today on Section 180 of the 2014 Act as, “clear authority to set fees above cost to cross-subsidise other parts of the courts and tribunals system”. He says, “The level of fee does not have to be related to the cost of the service and all additional income raised from enhanced fees can only be used to fund an effective and efficient courts and tribunals system”. He is quite right to point out that Section 180 permits,
“a fee of an amount which is intended to exceed the cost of anything in respect of which the fee is charged”,
but it permits only a fee, not a tax. These are probate fees and not court fees. The element of cross-subsidisation on which he relies is wrong in principle, because he is using a totally different part of the system to subsidise court fees.
The Minister has pointed out that a similar proposal was made in 2017, but with an upper fee of a massive £20,000, and he understated the outcry that it provoked. The proposal was not pursued to conclusion—anyway, the 2017 election intervened. Then as now, the draft SI was considered by both the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and by your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Your Lordships’ committee’s current report, published on
“The Government estimate that the revised fee structure will generate over £145 million in additional fee income in 2019–20, which they plan to use to pay the running costs of other parts of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services. We wonder whether the House envisaged the power being used for this degree of cross-subsidy when the Act was passed. This Committee’s concern about the revised fee structure remains the same as it was for the draft instrument laid in 2017: ‘while section 180 … permits the levying of enhanced fees, we are surprised to see it used to this extent. To charge a fee so far above the actual cost of the service arguably amounts to a ‘stealth tax’ and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power.’”
As for the difference between the £20,000 fee proposed in 2017 and the £6,000 fee proposed now, the committee expressed the view, with which I agree, that,
“the underlying principle behind the charge has not changed”.
The Government explain:
“Even the highest fee in our scheme would represent no more than 0.5% of the value of the estate”.
The Minister repeated that today. The committee thought that this sentence, relating the fee to the value of the estate,
“gives the fee the appearance of a tax rather than a fee linked to the actual cost of providing the service”.
The Joint Committee reported on
“The Committee draws the special attention of both Houses to this draft Order on the grounds that, if it is approved and made, there will be a doubt whether it is intra vires, and that it would in any event make an unexpected use of the power conferred by the enabling Act”.
It reminded Parliament that it had called last year’s draft order to the special attention of both Houses, on the grounds that,
“(a) the charges prescribed by it would in substance constitute a tax on estates, rather than probate fees, and may therefore be ultra vires; and (b) the Committee doubted whether Parliament contemplated that the enabling powers would be used in the way proposed by the Lord Chancellor”.
It distinguished enhanced court fees intended to pay for the Courts Service from enhanced fees for probate applications intended to subsidise the running of the Courts & Tribunals Service generally. The committee stated that,
“applying for probate is not to be compared with the commencement of proceedings. A person can choose whether to litigate, and therefore whether to incur the fees payable on issuing a claim—which may be recoverable from the defendant if the case succeeds. In contrast, executors have to obtain probate to allow them to administer an estate, and the fee for doing so is not refundable. This is an administrative process, akin to the registration of a life event. Nobody applying for an uncontested probate would think for a moment that they were engaging in litigation. That makes it difficult for the Committee to accept that a power to charge enhanced court fees can be extended naturally to require probate fees to reflect the general costs of the court and tribunal system”.
The point that executors have no choice but to apply for probate was powerfully made by the Law Society in its briefing for today’s debate. The committee thought these probate fees were like stamp duty and used the phrase “dressed up as ‘fees’”. It reminded Parliament:
“It is an important constitutional principle that there should be no taxation without the consent of Parliament, which must be embodied in statute and expressed in clear terms. In the Committee’s view, the 2018 Order is a measure of taxation for which there is no clear statutory authority”.
The committee referred to the 1921 case of the Attorney-General v Wilts United Dairies. However, there is older and more fundamental authority on the point of that case. In relation to tax-varying measures proposed in Clause 8 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee complained that the powers would enable the creation of what it called tax-like charges. It said:
“Fees and charges for services or functions should operate on a cost-recovery basis, leaving taxation for a Finance Bill”,
which it rightly described as,
The question for this House is whether it is appropriate to treat the enhanced fees proposed in the draft order as fees or a tax. I invite the House to accept the view that what the Government are intending to do here is, impermissibly, to introduce a tax by secondary legislation by a misuse of their power under the 2014 Act.
I accept that a fatal amendment is unusual. However, the Cunningham committee, in its report Conventions of the UK Parliament in 2006, concluded that there are situations in which it is right for the Lords to threaten to defeat a statutory instrument, citing as an example,
“where special attention is drawn to the instrument by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments or the Lords Select Committee on the Merits of SIs”.
That is so in the case here for both those committees. Both committees took that course. I would add to the specific examples in the list produced by the Cunningham committee that where a proposed SI offends against the fundamental principle that taxation requires primary legislation that is fully amendable, that is a matter of constitutional importance which entitles this House, in our role as guardians of the constitution, to reject an SI on that basis.
I have two further short points. First, these charges are to be paid up front. There is no provision, as there could have been, for the Government to defer payment where necessary until the assets of the estate, often real rather than liquid assets, are realised. Executors are not always beneficiaries; they are often friends or relatives of the deceased acting out of kindness. I see no reason why they should be subjected to these substantial charges payable before—often years before—the assets of the estate can be realised. This is a point well made by the briefing prepared for today by the Institute for Family Business, which cites asset-rich but cash-poor farming businesses as an example.
The Minister’s response to this point is that they can borrow the money, and he made that point again today. Perhaps they can in certain circumstances, perhaps even in most circumstances, but at a cost that is often considerable, both financial and administrative. The burden of obtaining a loan is often very significant. The alternative response that the noble and learned Lord gave at the all-Peers meeting that he kindly arranged to discuss this SI was that solicitors would no doubt offer credit. I have to say that that does not match my experience of solicitors paying disbursements for their clients.
My other point is that there are specific remissions of fees proposed in respect of deaths in the 2004 tsunami and deaths as a result of the July 2005 terrorist attacks. I suggest that if there were to be prescribed remissions, there ought to be a power to remit far more widely in other cases. The power to remit fees in exceptional circumstances, the safety net mentioned by the Minister, does not seem to me to answer that criticism.
However, this last was a minor point in respect of this SI, which is of course unamendable—and the fact that it is unamendable is something that noble Lords may well wish to take into account when deciding how to vote on this Motion. My principal point is one of constitutional importance, however, and I suggest that on that basis this House should decline to approve the order. I beg to move.
My Lords, I should inform the House that if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in the subject of this debate, albeit a posthumous one. Ultimately, I will not be affected by the proposed changes, although my daughter and son will be. I ought perhaps also to refer to my interest as an unpaid consultant to the firm of solicitors of which I was a senior partner in the light of the closing comments of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, about the professional aspect.
If ever there was a competition for the chronic misnaming of a piece of secondary legislation, the Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 would be a runaway winner. There is nothing non-contentious about it. As we have heard, the order, while exempting estates of £50,000 or less from the payment of fees, increases the cost for larger estates in a range from £250 for estates up to £300,000—or £150, as we heard, when an application is made by a solicitor—to £6,000 for estates above £2 million, generating a profit of £145 million a year over and above the £49 million fee income collected in fees for the service in 2016-17. That is effectively a fourfold increase.
Admittedly, this is somewhat less than the estimated £250 million which would have been garnered by the original proposals in 2017, as outlined in the government consultation document of 2016, and less again than the £300 million extra in additional fee income set out in their response to that consultation in February 2017. If there were a Nobel Prize for elasticity, the Ministry of Justice would, uncharacteristically, be a strong candidate.
The original proposals ignited a blaze of opposition among the general public, the media and both the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The former declared:
“To charge a fee so far above the actual cost of the service arguably amounts to a ‘stealth tax’ and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power”.
The latter averred that it had,
“a real doubt as to whether the Lord Chancellor may use a power to prescribe noncontentious probate fees for the purpose of funding services which executors do not seek to use—namely those provided by courts and tribunals dealing with litigation”,
a view strongly supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, the latter pointing out that,
“the grant of probate … is not in reality a judicial or court act at all. It is a simple but authoritative piece of paper, bearing a stamp, produced by a civil servant on a relatively low pay grade in a relatively short period of time, the average cost of which is £166”.
That reads as a mild rebuke compared with the critique proffered by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in its report of March 2017, shortly before the Prime Minister called the election which cost the Government their majority, and reiterated in its report of
“it is necessary to fund the wider courts and tribunals system to ensure an efficient and effective service”,
and responds by citing the Government’s guidance to departments in Managing Public Money, a government document stating that,
“different groups of customers should not be charged different amounts for a service costing the same”.
It also cites Managing Public Money’s statement that:
“Cross-subsidies always involve a mixture of overcharging and undercharging … So cross-subsidised charges are normally classified as taxes”,
“To charge a fee so far above the actual cost of the service arguably amounts to a ‘stealth tax’ and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power”,
under Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and that the order represents,
“a significant move away from the principle that fees for a public service should recover the cost of providing it and no more”— a damning judgment which I have included in the amendment in my name. This view is endorsed by the Institute for Family Business, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, an organisation which is not, to my knowledge, affiliated to the Labour Party—at least not yet.
There is certainly an important principle here. The Ministry of Justice is struggling with an overcrowded and underfunded Prison Service, an overstretched probation service, court closures and diminishing access to justice. Of course the justice system desperately needs better funding, but this should be provided not by a stealth tax but out of general taxation including, possibly, inheritance tax. If the Government go ahead with the provisions of this order, how can we rely on them not to adopt similar stealth taxes to fund other key services, for example by increasing prescription charges to a level exceeding the cost of the treatment supplied by the health service?
The Minister’s letter of
“provide clear authority to set fees above cost to cross-subsidise other parts of the courts and tribunal system”.
Section 92 refers explicitly to anything dealt with in the family court, county court or magistrates’ court. No mention is made of probate. Section 180 of the other Act refers to senior courts, county courts, magistrates’ courts, the Court of Protection and tribunals. Again, no mention is made of probate. The noble and learned Lord has argued the case for a deeply flawed order today.
However, while I can well understand the temptation to seek to annul this order, there is a real problem for this House in so doing. I understand that there have been only four occasions in the last 60 years on which the affirmative procedure has led to an order being struck down in your Lordships’ House. One such occasion, which some noble Lords will recall, was in relation to an order under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act—then a Bill—in 2012. My noble friend Lord Bach successfully moved such an amendment and was roundly denounced by the relevant Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who was then a Justice Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats. That amendment was not a simple repudiation of the order. It was tabled because the Government had reneged on a promise to amend the proposed provision they were bringing forward and was to give them the opportunity to revert to their earlier position.
Regretfully, we cannot support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, but if he presses it to a vote we will abstain. In that event, and assuming that the amendment is then lost, I will seek to test the opinion of the House on the amendment in my name.
My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, to the statutory instrument on so-called non-contentious probate fees. As a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I am very concerned that—as other noble Lords have said—the SI appears to be introducing a hypothecated tax on estates for use in subsidising parts of the HM Courts & Tribunals Service that will not at all be used by the fee payer. The SI introduces a huge increase in the cost of probate, which is just a document to enable the executors to administer the estate. It is nothing to do with courts and tribunals, which obviously involve vast costs.
The current fee of £155 if the application is made by a solicitor, and £215 if it is made by the executors in person, completely covers the cost of the probate service. Until now the fee has rightly not included any tax element at all, so this is a major departure from the way probate fees have been exercised in the past. Will the Minister explain why we suddenly need an entirely new approach to probate fees? Has it something to do with the massive cuts in the Treasury’s support for the courts service? I presume it is, but I do not think that makes the action of the justice department acceptable.
As other noble Lords have said, the proposed new fees are going to be on a sliding scale, up to £6,000 for estates of £2 million. This is a hike of 3,770% on larger estates. All but about £200 of the fee will in fact be a tax.
The committee accepts that Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 allows a fee to be prescribed that exceeds the cost of the provision of the service. I imagine that this probably allows for, for example, exempting very small estates from the fee at all, so then you need to have a slightly higher fee on bigger estates. That is perfectly reasonable. But the term “fee” has a clear connotation of recovery of costs incurred in the provision of the service. Although Section 180 permits enhanced fees, it remains a power to prescribe a fee, which clearly limits it to a relationship with the costs incurred.
The word “fee” does not equate to the term “tax”. A fee surely cannot comprise £200 to cover costs and £5,800 to the individual as a tax on the estate. If Parliament had intended the Lord Chancellor to be able to raise taxes in this way, it would have included such provisions very clearly in Section 180 to acknowledge that charging such a tax might be ultra vires. In the committee’s view, the 2018 order is a measure of taxation for which there is no clear statutory basis. Indeed, the committee could find no evidence that the Government suggested to Parliament during the debates on the Bill for the 2014 Act that the Section 180 powers would be used to prescribe probate fees in order to fund the operation of the courts generally or to provide for such huge and immediate increases in fees—let us call them “taxes”—in the way now proposed.
Furthermore, our committee’s view was reinforced by the report of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, mentioned. This points out that the proposed fees do not appear to conform to paragraph 3.6 in chapter 6 of Managing Public Money, the standard guidance to government departments from HM Treasury. Of course, that guidance makes it very clear that a fee should be equal for everyone involved and should represent the cost of the service. There should not be a sliding scale of a fee: that is made very clear in the Government’s own guidance.
As others have mentioned, the original proposal was to have a sliding scale up to £20,000. That was dropped as a result of the objections of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Can the Government can explain why, when they now accept that £20,000 is unreasonable, they think that £6,000 is somehow reasonable in this context? I suggest that the importance of this issue is that it could represent a precedent for other government departments. Just imagine the implications for citizens if government departments increased fees by some 3,000% for a wide range of services in order to incorporate a tax element to fund public services more generally. This would of course be ultra vires, as they are meant to be fees, as they are in this case. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance to the House today that the department will revisit the proposed probate fees and reduce them to bring them within the permitted limit.
I declare my interests as set out in the register, particularly my having been a practising solicitor for more than 50 years. During that time I have dealt with many estates and made many applications to the probate registry. Looking around the Chamber, I see several of your Lordships who have very kindly given me the honour of naming me as one of their executors. I am not seeking any further orders this evening, but this year, for example, I have been in constant touch with the probate registry in dealing with the estate of one of our colleagues who, sadly, died a little while ago.
I want to say at the outset how much I compliment the staff of the principal registry and the district registries, who give a service second to none. I want the House to be aware that they give considered, careful advice and guidance to anyone who contacts the registry. They are to be commended on that first-class service.
I have of course listened carefully to the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames and Lord Beecham, but their worries will not prove correct. For instance, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was worried about prescription charges being greatly enhanced, but of course Section 180(1) of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 will not extend to prescription charges. The Minister has put a carefully considered case in a balanced way because it is already clear that this is an enhanced fee. All the income raised is ring-fenced and is used only to fund an efficient and effective court and tribunal system and to ensure that tribunals and access to justice are maintained. Yes; enhanced fees will enable the Government to cross-subsidise other parts of the courts and tribunal system, and that is a good thing. For some time I have been a strong supporter of free access to the mental health review tribunals. Other parts of the system, particularly in parts of family justice, including in domestic violence and non-molestation orders, have no or very low fees, which is a good thing. What the Minister is doing today will enable that to continue.
The changes to the probate fee scheme are fair and proportionate. I am particularly pleased that the estate threshold under which no fee is paid will be raised from £5,000 to £50,000—a tenfold increase which I warmly welcome. That will lift an additional 25,000 estates per year out of having to pay any fee at all, and the highest charge is £6,000. From my experience, I do not believe that that will present a problem.
No doubt the Minister will give a more considered reply, but I certainly do not regard it as a tax, particularly as it is described as, and actually is, an enhanced fee. I have to admit that I was troubled by the original proposal, but the Government have listened to those concerns and have significantly reduced the enhanced fees from that proposal.
I genuinely ask out of misunderstanding: surely the point about probate fees is that you have to pay them, whereas other cases in the courts are of a wholly different kind. This is a payment you have to make if there is to be probate. Would my noble friend agree that it would be odd if we had a fee for the registration of birth—which is also compulsory—that was connected with the amount of money that the person registering would be able to pay? It seems odd to call a fee something which is connected with the value of something you have to do. It is the having to do it which makes it different from any other court situation that I can think of.
I can think of many other court situations; I anticipate that my noble friend the Minister will have a great list for my noble friend Lord Deben. There are many occasions on which you pay a fee; at the end of the day, it is intended to cover the costs of the system. This goes slightly further, I agree, but within a ring-fenced system—if I could have my noble friend’s attention—the money cannot go just anywhere. It has to go toward enhancing the Courts & Tribunals Service. I think this is the right way forward to ensure we have the access that I described earlier. I warmly commend my noble friend the Minister and I support his order.
My Lords, this order relies above all on Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. As that name perhaps suggests, it was a great Christmas tree of an Act. One recalls its passage all too well; it occupies no fewer than 231 pages of the Queen’s Printers’ copy, with 186 sections and 11 schedules.
This House discharges its scrutiny function very carefully, with great conscientiousness, but perhaps, just occasionally, Homer nods; did we perhaps nod here as we reached towards the end of this mammoth Bill? Of course, we must now construe and apply Section 180 as enacted. That said, while Section 180 contains apparently no limits whatever to the extent of its permissible use, provided always that the excess funds raised are devoted to the efficacy of the Courts & Tribunals Service, ought we not to construe it somewhat fastidiously so as to guard against its use for what is essentially a tax-raising exercise?
Of course, cross-subsidisation is permissible, but is it no less obviously the case that a point will come at which what is purportedly an enhanced fee with a view to cross-subsidisation becomes truly a tax, improperly raised without primary legislation? Suppose that the proposed maximum here of £6,000 were, not the £20,000 suggested last year but, say, £60,000 for estates over £20 million. What would we say? We know that £145 million is to be raised by this order for cross-subsidisation, but why only £145 million? The deficit in the service is something like £1 billion, so why should £500 million not be raised for cross-subsidisation?
Is the proposed schedule truly a schedule of fees or does it at some point, disguised as such, descend in reality into a schedule of taxes? That, I would suggest, is the question for your Lordships. I shall listen carefully to the Government’s arguments—indeed, to all the arguments. Only at the end of the debate shall I decide how to vote. I recognise that that may be regarded as a somewhat unusual approach in this House, but I have a certain nostalgia for my earlier occupation.
My Lords, I too declare an interest, as a solicitor. I have not practised for some time, so I will not hand out cards suggesting that colleagues consult my old firm. It was the suggestion about advances made by solicitors from their office accounts that consolidated my interest in this topic. However, I want to make a wider point and to ask one very specific question.
I believe that tax is a good thing. It is the price of a civilised society and so on but it must be transparent. It is a question of trust and honesty on the part of government. It is all part of the very topical but for ever issue of citizens’ trust in the Government and how that Government raise money. It is also part of joining up across departments and subject areas, and asking departments to look for their own income generation in the way that this proposal does. Income generation is important but it is not helpful if it is completely siloed.
The Minister refers to Section 180 of the Christmas tree Act, but I rather think that the public—I do not include the subset who understand the origin of the probate service and the family courts—would find it not immediately obvious that fees for the grant of probate should finance the court service generally. They might not say that they are doubtful about whether it is intra vires, but questions will be raised in their minds.
As I understand it, currently there is full recovery of the costs of the probate service. The Minister has referred to improvements to the service, and those must be welcome, but I believe that I have read somewhere that they will lead to savings, not costs, although I dare say that an initial investment is involved. As has been said, there is no option but to use the probate service, which adds to the question of whether one is paying for a service or paying a levy, and that perception is compounded by the administration being the same, regardless of the value of the estate.
My specific question is about Section 180. Subsection (3)(a) requires the Lord Chancellor to have regard to,
“the financial position of the courts and tribunals for which the Lord Chancellor is responsible, including … costs incurred by those courts and tribunals that are not being met by current fee income”.
The subsection goes on, joined by the word “and”, to paragraph (b), which states that the Lord Chancellor must also have regard to,
“the competitiveness of the legal services market”.
I do not believe that there is a market in grants of probate administration. I will be grateful if the Minister can explain to the House how that provision has been considered, what regard the Lord Chancellor has had to the competitiveness of the legal services market and what conclusion the Lord Chancellor has reached.
My Lords, I agree with much of what has been said this afternoon. In my mind, this enhanced fee is a death tax, and I should like to take this opportunity to shine a light on what, in practical terms, this will mean for a particular group of people—the people in the middle. It is always the people in the middle whom one has to pay attention to. Clearly, it is a very good thing if people at one end of the scale are taken out of the tax or fee altogether, and I suspect that there will not be a lot of sympathy for those with multimillion pound estates having to pay an additional 0.5% charge. However, we should look at how the scale has changed for an estate of about £500,000. At £500,001 the fee goes up from £215 to £2,500, which is quite a considerable hike. Who are these people with estates of, say, £500,000, who will be subject to this fee? What do they look like? What sorts of lives do they lead? That is a lot of money.
We know from the Lord Chancellor’s briefing to us that about 25% of an average estate is in cash or liquid assets. We can assume that on a £500,000 estate, £125,000 would be in cash or investments—money saved over a lifetime, perhaps some capital taken from a pension after a hard-working life— and a family home of some £375,000. Across the country, that would be regarded as a fairly modest estate. In fact, only a few years ago people were throwing up their hands in horror that those who had bought their council houses were now subject to inheritance tax.
I say this directly to my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench. All my political life I have supported the Conservative policy of encouraging people to work hard and buy their property, and for many people to buy their council house. We are now saying to this part of middle England— if I may refer to them in that way—that they now have to subsidise the Ministry of Justice by having another £2,500 knocked off their estate. These people are not saying “I would like to leave this to somebody in my will”. Yet they are going to be cross-subsidising another group of people against their will, however laudable that cross-subsidy may be. That is where their money is going.
Unbeknown to many of these people, this is not the only cross-subsidy they are making. For example, people with those sorts of assets—a house worth £375,000, and £125,000 in assets—but who are older, perhaps nearing death, find that if they need nursing and residential care, they will not be eligible for much help in terms of residential and nursing fees. Yet, very often by sleight of hand, when they are paying their own fees they are cross-subsidising the fees of people who are paid for out of the public purse. This group of people—those who are growing old and have worked hard, perhaps buying their home for the first time in their family’s history—is going to be hit hardest.
As a Conservative, I find this appalling, because these are not Conservative policies. This is not what Conservative Governments across decades have encouraged people to do: to save hard, to work hard, to buy their own homes, to put money aside for their retirement only to find that by sleight of hand, an enhanced fee is going to knock another £2,500 off their estate. For that reason, I will not be in the Government Lobby tonight.
My Lords, there are two aspects to this debate. There is the suggestion that these regulations are unconstitutional, which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has argued, and there is the argument as to whether this is fair, the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham.
When the noble Lord, Lord Marks, tells the House that something is of constitutional importance, I normally get excited and follow him eagerly into the Division Lobby—but I cannot do so today. These regulations are not ultra vires but plainly valid and within the scope of what the House approved in Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. The point of that provision was to confer power on the Lord Chancellor to charge fees which are higher than the cost of the services being provided.
Section 180(1) states the Lord Chancellor may,
“prescribe a fee of an amount which is intended to exceed the cost of anything in respect of which the fee is charged”.
It could not be clearer. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, then says that one part of the courts system cannot be used, even under that provision, to act as a cross-subsidy for another part of the courts system. My answer is look at Section 180(3), which says that the Lord Chancellor, when he sets these charges, must have regard to,
“the financial position of the courts and tribunals for which the Lord Chancellor is responsible”— in the plural. It is general, not specific. And if there is any doubt about that, look at Section 180(6), which adds what the purpose of the fees must be. The fees,
“must be used to finance an efficient and effective system of courts and tribunals”.
The whole purpose of these provisions as I understand them is to confer a power on the Lord Chancellor to charge a fee higher than the cost of a service, in order precisely to provide funds that will enable the courts and tribunals system in general to be financed. There is no question of a lack of validity in these regulations.
It is then said that this is unfair; the noble Baroness made a powerful speech. But let us be realistic. Lawyers—and non-lawyers as well—have been complaining with increasing power and force in recent years that the legal system is in desperate need of additional resources. We need more money for legal aid, for improvements to the courts estate—which is in a disgraceful condition—and for improved judicial salaries to ensure that the high quality of our judiciary is retained. That money has to come from somewhere—and the choice is very simple.
Of course you could raise general taxation, but the same people about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, is rightly concerned would equally complain if their taxes were raised. The money is needed; the legal system—the courts and tribunals which the Lord Chancellor has to protect—are in a desperate position. The money is desperately needed. I am no more enthusiastic about these regulations than other noble Lords, but it seems to me that, given the problems we face, these regulations do impose a charge which is reasonable in its content and is a reasonable means of raising some of the revenue required to fund the courts and tribunals system of this country.
The noble Lord has construed parts of Section 180; I think he has got it in front of him because he has been reading from it. My question about Section 180(3)(b) was addressed to the Minister, but the House respects the noble Lord and I wonder whether he has views about the Lord Chancellor having to have regard to the competitiveness of the legal services market in this situation.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her observation. My answer to the noble Baroness is that, yes, the Lord Chancellor is obliged to have regard to,
“the competitiveness of the legal services market”,
but I understand that to apply only in a context where there is a competitive market. Of course, in many contexts there is. But, like the noble Baroness, I do not understand there to be a competitive market for probate, and in my judgment that provision does not require the Lord Chancellor to have regard to a factor which is simply not relevant to the topic we are discussing.
My Lords, I am not a lawyer. I have never applied for probate, I know nothing about the operation of the probate service and I come at this as a babe in the legal wood. But having read the paperwork that was put down and heard this afternoon’s discussion, I see four things. I see us helping the poorest in our society by eliminating any charge for estates between £5,000 and £50,000. I see us ensuring that the maximum charge is never more than 0.5%, and sometimes less than that. I see a maximum of £6,000 on even the largest estate, and I see this providing a degree of cross-subsidy to ensure that we have an efficient courts and tribunals system—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has just made. So I say to my noble friend Lady Browning, with the very greatest respect, that those seem to be perfectly good Conservative principles, and I therefore support what the Government are trying to achieve here.
If we chase down the vires point which the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, focused on, surely any amount of return above cost is not allowable in his argument. We are about to have a reduction in the cost, as I read the papers, of £9.30—the estimated reduction in the average unit cost of applying for probate—as a result of the new system. I am not clear—perhaps the noble Lord can enlighten me when he concludes—about whether his proposal is now to reduce the fees, because of course they will be above the cost of providing the service.
I have been involved in the charity and voluntary sectors. I have worked on their behalf, written reports to the Government, supported them and fought their corner in third-party campaigning and other areas. The reports have been well received by the sector, and sufficiently well received that the Government immediately banned any idea of bringing them in—but never mind about that. The point is that they have made a great case about the impact on charities and charitable donations of the imposition of these particular charges. I must say that, however I work the maths and however I try to work through the ideas, I do not see the logic of the more extreme and indeed scaremongering issues that have been raised by many parts of the sector.
It must surely be perverse that under the present system we are charging the same fee to someone who has a £5,001 estate as to someone who has a £20 million estate. That must be perverse and the present system must not be right. This must be a way of improving it.
My Lords, I will not join in the discussion about what is or is not a Conservative principle, but it is clear that this measure is in fact highly contentious, drafted as it is by the irony division of the Ministry of Justice.
Its 2016 predecessor was also highly contentious, as it attempted to impose probate fees of up to £20,000. The consultation response, which has not so far been mentioned, to the 2016 proposal was overwhelmingly negative. It was opposed by both the Law Society and the Bar Council, among others, and both Houses were, to say the least, worried and unenthusiastic about the proposal.
The grounds for opposition were clear. The proposal was a tax poorly disguised as a fee. It may well have been ultra vires. The use of Section 180(3) of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 as a legal base for the absolutely enormous increase in costs may well not have been within what Parliament envisaged. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, noted, there was no indication at all as that Bill proceeded through Parliament that the power in Section 180(3) would be used to prescribe probate fees to fund the Courts & Tribunal Service generally.
The 2018 version of the SI that we debate today is different from its 2016 predecessor in only one main respect: its charges are lower. In the abandoned 2016 version, the probate fee for estates of £2 million was set at £20,000. In this version, the fee is £6,000. That is a reduction in the quantum only. It does not address the objections raised to the principle of such a charge, so very far above the cost of providing the probate service.
As noble Lords have said, the current probate fee is flat across all sizes of estate. It stands at £155 for an application made by a solicitor and £215 for an individual application. Those fees are based on cost recovery. The principle of cost recovery as the basis for charging for the service is abandoned by this new SI. An estate worth £2 million will pay nearly 40 times the actual cost of the service.
Responding to the Government’s response to its review of the 2016 proposal, the JCSI said:
“The Committee understands that, where a statute authorises the charging of a fee in respect of a service, the word ‘fee’ has connotations of recovery of costs, direct or indirect, incurred in the provision of the service concerned or in the administration of the process, and that there must be express authority to charge a fee which exceeds the cost of the service”.
The committee also acknowledged that Section 180(3) provided that authority. But it went on to say that:
“Nonetheless it remains a power to prescribe a ‘fee’, a concept which is subject to inherent limitations about the relationship to the service for which it is charged – including (arguably) one of proportionality”.
The committee was not convinced that the generally worded provision to charge enhanced fees gave the Lord Chancellor a licence to compel executors to pay whatever amount she regarded as appropriate for the purpose of providing funds for the courts and tribunals as opposed to the probate registry in particular. The Joint Committee noted that:
“It is an important constitutional principle that there is no taxation without the consent of Parliament, which must be embodied in statute and expressed in clear terms”.
Those views were about the 2016 order. They apply, word for word, principle for principle, to the 2018 version now before us.
Our own Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am privileged to be a co-opted member, reached essentially the same conclusion in its report of
“to charge a fee so far above the actual cost of the service … amounts to a ‘stealth tax’ and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power”.
The fact is that the Government have already admitted that this is a tax and not a fee. The 2017 Spring Budget papers acknowledged that it would be classified as a tax in the national accounts, as the Charity Tax Group has pointed out. It is clearly a tax on estates. The people affected would largely be the relatives of the deceased and charities. The impact assessment confirms that. It says on page 8:
“Beneficiaries of the estate may incur a cost if, because of the increased probate fees, they receive a smaller proportion of the deceased’s estate. This will mainly affect relatives of the deceased, but may also impact charities”.
The impact assessment makes no attempt to quantify the impacts of this additional tax, but the Institute of Legacy Management has. It said that the charities would lose up to £10 million a year.
I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will not attempt to paint that sum as trivial. I am sure he knows how stretched charities are at the moment, especially small charities, and how much we depend on their activities. I notice, too, that the impact assessment twice asserts that the new arrangements will reduce the taxpayer subsidy. They will not. They will simply add a further tax to be paid on the inheritance from relatives.
This SI proposes a further charge on inheritance. The charge is not a fee. It can be 40 times higher than the cost of providing the service. It is most definitely a tax. It will hit relatives and charities. It has no sound basis in law. It is an abuse of the powers in Section 180 of the 2014 Act. It is also an abuse of parliamentary procedures. It attempts to raise a tax via secondary legislation, avoiding full parliamentary scrutiny and the possibility of amendment. It would be a tax levied without the proper consent of Parliament embodied in statute. With this SI, the Government are trying to impose a tax by stealth and by improper means. As the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments noted,
“The Lord Chancellor is not permitted to impose a tax”.
He is not, and we should not let him. I urge the House to reject this instrument.
My Lords, I want to say just a little since the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has dealt with the law and I happen to agree with him. As your Lordships all know, I frequently disagreed with him in a previous existence. Whenever I did, he appealed to a higher court and was always right. This time I agree with him because I happen to agree with him. I will not repeat the reasons.
I will take a slightly different stance. The debate we have had, assuming that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is right—as I say, I agree with him—is whether section whatever it was of some 235 sections produced the power the Lord Chancellor now seeks to exercise. If it did, the problem is not with this statutory instrument, which we are all attacking and which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has indicted ferociously and accurately, but with the primary legislation, which, I am sorry to say, we probably did not analyse with sufficient care. I was not here at the time, so I do not bear any personal responsibility.
I am sorry to say this, but we were vesting in statute after statute vast powers in the Executive. We do it and we let it happen. We cannot complain if the Executive, having been vested with these powers, choose to exercise them. We vest powers in not just this Executive, but the next one, the one after and the one after that. That seems an aspect arising from the present order that we really should not overlook. We should be more alert when powers are being vested in the Executive to do almost anything by secondary legislation.
That has got that off my chest. Now I declare an interest. Because of the office I once held, I am perfectly well aware of the fact that our civil courts system is in a shambles. It needs funding. It needs much more funding than this funding would provide. If the Lord Chancellor has the powers—as I said, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that he has—this seems a sensible use of them to achieve a very important societal purpose.
My Lords, the 2014 Act was passed by Parliament when there was a coalition Government in power. I had the privilege of bringing in enhanced fees that, it has been suggested, should be viewed in rather a favourable light compared with the probate fees that are the subject of this statutory instrument. I certainly do not remember that being the response at the time, although the arguments—namely cross-subsidy—were the same. Indeed, I specifically remember making the point that it was always an option whether you chose to litigate. That has been raised as a favourable point in support of this statutory instrument, where obviously there is no question of choice.
The reality is that both these provisions were there to subsidise the much-needed court system. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, will remember that the coalition Government came to power facing an economic crisis and that a number of cuts had to be made, particularly to the Ministry of Justice budget, which the Liberal Democrats went along with happily, as did the Conservative Party, as a result of which the courts have been feeling the strain and are continuing to in a way that a number of noble Lords have pointed out. This is an attempt to at least alleviate some of that strain.
My noble friend Lord Hunt mentioned the case for cross-subsidisation. I respectfully suggest that he is right. He mentioned a number of areas. I could mention more: non-molestation orders, occupation orders, forced marriage protection orders and female genital mutilation protection orders. There are all sorts of tribunals involving family immigration and asylum that do not pay for themselves but need cross-subsidisation.
Crude though it may be, this order will be a valuable addition to our beleaguered legal system, about which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and all in your Lordships’ House share concern. The Government have responded to the initial outcry, if I might describe it as such, about the amounts involved. They have been lowered. I respectfully suggest that the Minister has made out the case.
My Lords, clearly, after an hour and 20 minutes, this non-contentious probate order is misnamed. It is interesting that opposition to it unites the noble Lords, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames and Lord Beecham, and the Daily Mail. I am also in strong agreement with my noble friend Lady Browning that it is a distinctly un-Conservative policy that will alienate our natural supporters once a lot of them have woken up to what is going on.
I will not talk about the order in detail because everyone else has discussed it, but the fee of £6,000 for an estate of £2 million is high if, for instance, a main residence is taken into consideration. It is not just I and other noble Lords in this House who disapprove of the order. A helpful Law Society brief which I do not think has been touched on so far states:
“The service involved in a grant of probate is the same whether an estate is worth £50,000 or £2 million. However, under the new proposals, some estates would face a charge of £6,000. This is excessive … It is unfair to expect the bereaved to fund/subsidise other parts of the court and tribunals service, particularly in circumstances where they have no other options but to use the probate service”.
Echoing the Law Society’s concerns, and as many other noble Lords have stated, our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has stated that it has very serious concerns that the order,
“arguably amounts to a ‘stealth tax’ and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power”.
Similarly, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, as other noble Lords have stated, raised concerns as to whether the order is intra vires, noting that it makes an unexpected use of the power conferred by the enabling Act.
The Law Society wholly agrees with the two committees that the current proposed fee is a misuse of the fee-levying power under Section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. I will not join in the debate about this section and the different views expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, except to say that once you start levying this sort of thing, what is to stop any amount being levied by way of an extra fee, or even applying to other aspects of the legal system?
I thank my noble and learned friend. Obviously tackling the primary legislation would be quite a major manoeuvre, and I feel that the only easy way of tackling it is by restraint.
The Law Society says that although the powers under the Act allowed the levying of a fee, it does not confer a power on the Lord Chancellor to impose a tax. This steep increase amounts to a tax, not a fee. Failure to pay a fee means a person is precluded from benefiting from the service offered. However, a tax is a levy by the Government for the benefit of the whole population. It is compulsory and cannot be avoided.
Like other noble Lords, I have also received a briefing from the Institute for Family Business, which emphasises all the Law Society’s issues. It also stresses the difficulties in raising the cash to pay the fees as they have to be paid up front before probate is granted. Could the Minister respond to the Law Society’s and the IFB’s concerns?
In short, this is a most un-Conservative measure that will alienate our natural support, and is a stealth tax by any other name. The individual tax burden is now the highest since the 1980s. I quote from an article by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in the House magazine of
“It is not a fee but a radical graduated tax, which in these times of crazy property values will hit families of modest incomes hard when a family member dies. There should be a far fuller debate than will be afforded through a statutory instrument taken late in the evening away from the gaze”,
of public scrutiny.
I shall certainly support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and consider supporting that of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. His argument that, as it is a tax by any other name, it should have been included in the Budget, has strong validity. However, can the Minister confirm that the other place has not opposed it? I am conscious of the constitutional consequences of voting down an order, so reluctantly I will not be supporting the noble Lord’s amendment.
My Lords, noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I have been in this area before. Indeed, in my time there was a very serious question as to whether the courts service should be dealt with at all by fees. It was thought that it was a public service for which the taxpayer should pay. However, that contention has gradually passed away. The only occasion on which I was overturned in judicial review was in relation to a fee that was being charged under regulations which were signed as approved by the heads of division as well as myself. Notwithstanding all that, we did not succeed: the Divisional Court held that our fee structure was slightly defective and we immediately tried to put it right. An interesting result of that, which I must say is dear to me, about the administration of justice at the time when I had responsibility for it, was that the advocate, the barrister who defeated me and the others in the court, was nominated for silk shortly after and wrote to me to say how fair the system seemed to be.
The point as I see it is that the ordinary rule is that an amount charged as a fee which is substantially more than the cost of the service would be a tax, unless authorised by statute. That is where Section 180 comes in, as has been very clearly explained. Exactly what is done about it is a matter of discretion given to the Lord Chancellor. Here, there is a distinction between the bigger estates and the small estates justifying that kind of approach, which my noble friend Lady Browning referred to. She is a bit anxious about the middle and might prefer to see the bigger bit at the top and a smaller bit at the middle. However, I am not going to enter into that; I am just saying that it is quite impossible, in my view, to say that this is unconstitutional. The matter is one for the discretion of the Lord Chancellor and I entirely agree with the view that the courts service urgently needs as much money as it can lawfully get.
My Lords, I understand the concerns expressed by noble Lords, but I also believe that these measures deserve support. I declare an interest as an executor of the estate of a relative who would need to pay these higher fees. Nobody likes the idea of paying fees but someone has to pay for the courts system and, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay have both explained, as have other noble and learned Lords, this is a valid use of ministerial powers.
I was critical of the previous proposals in 2017, which seemed to me excessive, but I am delighted that the Government have listened. Some 60% of estates will pay just £250—not that different from now—and 25,000 more of the poorest estates will be lifted out of probate fees altogether. More than half of all estates will pay nothing. If we pass the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, the entire proposed reforms would fall, so more of the poorest estates would pay higher fees while the largest estates would escape the higher fees. The other place did not oppose this. How will it look if this House prevents a measure that would ask higher-value estates to pay more to help lower-value estates? This money will be ring-fenced and it will help secure access to justice, which is a fundamental British value that has to be paid for.
I understand that there is concern about the level of fees. I think there are times when we have to recognise that there are issues for which cross-subsidies are relevant. In terms of fees, if we look at other areas of the economy, estate agent fees and solicitors’ fees are very often charged as a proportion of the value being transacted, if you like. An estate agent probably does not have to do a lot more work to sell a house worth £500,000 than one valued at £5 million, yet they will be paid much more in so-called fees. So I do think that there is an element of proportionality here. A £500,000 estate will pay £750. The consumer group Which? estimates that an estate worth £500,000 would face enormous legal fees. For example, the bank will charge £20,000 on average; solicitors will charge £10,000 on average; the funeral, which has to be paid for, will cost £5,000 or £10,000, perhaps more. So the idea that the maximum amount of £6,000 is being charged in order to help access to justice for domestic violence victims, mental health review tribunals or social security and child support does not seem to me to be disproportionate. I hope noble Lords will accept the idea that this is a necessary change that fulfils an important social purpose about which the Government are entirely entitled to take such decisions.
My Lords, I am obliged to all parts of the House for contributions to the debate on this order. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, correctly identified that there are two issues. One is whether the proposal is constitutional or unconstitutional. The second concerns fairness. Of course, at times the two arguments have merged. I will endeavour, however, to address each in turn.
On the question of whether the instrument is intra vires or not, I have to say that it is quite clear that statutory justification for it is given by Section 180 of the 2014 Act. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, may, for reasons he has expressed in the past, deprecate the extent to which Parliament has given powers to the Executive in this regard: I think that in this instance it is entirely proper. Nevertheless, the power is there. On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, with reference to Section 180(3)(a) and (b), subsection (b) was referred to in the impact assessment, where it was determined that there was no identifiable or significant impact upon competitiveness in this context—which is hardly surprising in the circumstances.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, suggested in the context of the vires of the instrument that it was necessary that the fee should be equal for all involved, otherwise it would be a tax. With great respect, at present there is no fee for estates worth less than £5,000: the current system is not equal in that respect. It is certainly my recollection that the probate fee was progressive until about 1999. The fixed fee came in only in the recent past, less than 20 years ago. Again, one has to see this in context. Let me be clear: the idea of progressive fees is not exceptional or unusual. A civil money claim for £1,000 may often be far more complex and demanding than a civil money claim for £100,000, but the fee in respect of civil money claims is progressive by reference to the sum to be recovered. These elements already exist in our system.
With this instrument, we are intending to remove more than half of all estates from any probate fee whatever, yet the logic of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, would be that we cannot do that because if we did the fee would not be equal for all involved. It is entirely appropriate that there should be a progressive fee system, just as there has been in the past and just as there is with other elements of judicial and related claims. In that context, an application for probate is an application for, in essence, a determination of status in order that somebody can ingather an estate and distribute it, so it is in a sense a judicial process, albeit, as it has developed over the years, it is seen as an administrative application.
There is clear statutory authority for the making of this order and the introduction of these sensible and proportionate fees in this context. The provision is there; I will not seek to repeat it. On the issue of fairness, I emphasise that more than half of all estates will be taken out of any fee whatever, the maximum fee will be £2,500, and the fee can never exceed 0.5% of the value of the estate.
The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, raised some of the observations that have been made with respect to charities. Let us be clear: if a legacy is left to a charity and it is of a fixed sum, it will not be impacted at all by the provision. It would arise only in those—perhaps exceptional—circumstances where the entire estate is left to the charity. One has to appreciate that it is only in those exceptional circumstances that there could be any indirect—I emphasise that—effect on the value of the legacy itself.
At the end of the day, we are taking a proportionate and sensible approach to the need to ensure that we can maintain access to justice throughout our entire courts and tribunals system. We have been fair with regard to the level of the fees which have now been fixed for this purpose. I emphasise that we are dealing with a question of fees, not with the issue of a tax. In that regard, therefore, I invite noble Lords to concur with my Motion.
How does the Minister reconcile the position the Government have taken with the guidance to departments in Managing Public Money, to which I referred?
There is clear statutory authority for the fixing of these fees in order that there can be an element of cross-subsidy between the various elements of the courts and tribunals system. It is justified by that statutory permission.
My Lords, the Minister put his case, supported by other noble Lords, on the basis that these probate fees will be used to, in effect, cross-subsidise the courts and tribunals system, and for increased spending on access to justice. Your Lordships will know that I am a staunch advocate of access to justice, that I believe in spending on legal aid and in renewing the court estate, and that I am concerned about the quality of judges. But the spending for those laudable aims ought to be met out of general taxation, raised in the ordinary way envisaged by the Bill of Rights and other statutes since: by amendable primary legislation subject to the full scrutiny of Parliament, not out of the hypothecation of excessive fees—which are, to use the committee’s phrase, taxes “dressed up as ‘fees’”—to subsidise that sort of spending. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that the Government’s guidance on managing public money, which compares fees with the costs of producing a service and says that that should be borne in mind by government, is apposite.
I usually agree with the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick—which has persuaded the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and, to a certain extent, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay—on statutory construction. However, it escapes me how he managed to construe Section 180 of the 2014 Act without looking at the meaning of “fee”. Section 180(1) provides:
“In prescribing a fee under an enactment specified in subsection (2), the Lord Chancellor may with the consent of the Treasury prescribe a fee of an amount which is intended to exceed the cost of anything in respect of which the fee is charged”.
The noble Lord says that he can infer from that—and the Minister jumps on that statement—that it does not matter by how much the fee exceeds the cost of providing the service. I respectfully commend the approach of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, who asked that very question. There has to be a stage at which the amount charged so far exceeds the cost of the service that the Government are not charging for a service but are seeking to raise money. That is what is involved in the cross-subsidisation and at this level I suggest it has to be a tax. That is the way that it was treated by Managing Public Money, the Government’s guidance, and that is the way that both the Joint Committee and your Lordships’ committee saw it. I do not accept the construction contended for by the noble Lord.
It is disappointing that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, suggested that the Labour Benches will abstain. I hope that noble Lords on the Labour Benches will in fact support my fatal amendment. Of course, it is a serious matter, but I suggest that this statutory instrument ought to be struck down precisely because it is seeking to dress up taxes as fees in a way that is impermissible. That is a wrong use of the statute. In answer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the statute may be slightly carelessly drawn—it could have been more specific—but that should not be used by Ministers to drive a coach and horses through the statute when seeking to rely on the enabling powers to pass statutory instruments. That is what they do when they use the permission to exceed the cost to drive through a wild, excessive charge such as this one.
Striking this statutory instrument down is the correct course to take. A regret amendment will not achieve the end that ought to be achieved. The Government will be at liberty to reconsider their position and bring back revised fees, certainly, but not fees on this scale, which many noble Lords have deplored. I have heard nothing that dissuades me from seeking to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 90, Noes 187.
Moved by Lord Beecham
At the end insert “but this House regrets that the draft Order will introduce a revised non-contentious probate fee structure considered by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to be “so far above the actual cost of the service [it] arguably amounts to a stealth tax and, therefore, a misuse of the fee-levying power” under section 180 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; and that this Order represents a significant move away from the principle that fees for a public service should recover the cost of providing it and no more.”
My Lords, I beg leave to test the opinion of the House on the amendment in my name.
Ayes 186, Noes 161.