HL Deb 27 January 1997 vol 577 cc957-9

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they are making intentional increases in the charges imposed on users of the civil justice system.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, civil court fees have been increased to bring civil fee income more closely in line with the rising costs of the administration of civil justice.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend explain why the cost of civil justice is rising? Can she also tell the House whether it is necessary for it to rise and what action the Government are taking to stop it from so doing?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is not that the costs have gone up: it is because we are gradually proceeding towards the recovery of the full cost. The latest projection of the Court Service for the year 1997-98 was that, without the recent fee increases, the income from civil fees would have fallen short of the cost recovery target by some £47 million—a burden on the taxpayer.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that court fees are now an impossible burden for poorer people and that this holds true not only in the High Court but also in the county court? Is the noble Baroness also aware that the whole system of court fees now needs to be reviewed? Further, does she recall that her noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said a few weeks ago that he was going to set up a review? Can the noble Baroness say whether there is any truth in that and whether we can expect such a review?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has already committed himself to reforming the system of civil litigation in line with the recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the first we heard about these increased charges was when they were discussed in terms of tenants bringing actions regarding service charges? We were then told that it would be a matter of covering costs, right down to the milk for the office cat. In terms of the civil court, is this a similar situation? Is it a process of going towards that same level of payment?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am not quite sure about the cat. Nevertheless, speaking about those on low incomes whose court proceedings are funded by legal aid, I can say that they will continue to have their court fees paid by the Legal Aid Fund. In proceedings where legal aid is seldom or never granted—small claims and undefended divorce proceedings—provision has been made for fees to be reduced for those on low incomes or in receipt of income support.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that families on income support were previously completely exempt from court fees? But now, when they face a possession order for the family home or a default judgment for debt, they cannot even obtain the assistance of the court's staff to apply to the court for a rescheduling of the rent or debt obligation unless on payment of £10, which they do not have. Is that not a disgrace? Should not fee exemption for families on income support be restored?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, except in the category of case where possession is mandatory, the defendant will have had an opportunity to defend himself or herself and to inform the court of his or her financial circumstances. The costs to the Court Service of processing such an application is over £20. Therefore, £10 is deemed to be an acceptable minimum contribution towards meeting that cost.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House whether the Government have accepted the recommendation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, that the position of the litigant of modest means must be protected from the undue impact of these increased fees?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in a Written Answer my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has already stated that the implementation of reforms to civil procedures recommended by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, will necessitate a review of the current fee structure to ensure that fees are charged at an appropriate level and at an appropriate point in the progression of a case. During the review, full account will be taken of the position of litigants of modest means.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, whatever the arguments for or against fee recovery in the courts may be, will the noble Baroness agree that the position in relation to tribunals is quite different? Can she give an undertaking that there is no proposal at present to extend this principle to tribunals?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it would be invidious for me to give any such agreement in the absence of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. However, I shall pass on the remarks of the noble and learned Lord to my noble and learned friend.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of any offer by members of the legal profession to voluntarily reduce their fees in order to assist in the resolution of this problem?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, consultation has taken place. The Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the Vice-Chancellor and the President of the Family Division were all consulted about the proposals, as were the Chief Taxing Master, Her Majesty's Council of Circuit Judges and the Association of District Judges. I do not know whether they made any proposals concerning their salaries.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the difficulty that people living on income support have in making ends meet? Does she think it is reasonable for the Government to say that such families must find £10 when they already have to choose between food and heating, and now can choose between neither?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, less well off litigants bringing small claims and undefended divorce cases remain protected by provisions which reduce court fees to a minimum contribution. The fees for those who are eligible for legal aid will continue to be borne by the Legal Aid Fund.

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