VICTORIA SPEAKS IN DEBATE ON COURTS AND TRIBUNALS FEES

On Monday 4 July, Victoria Prentis, MP for North Oxfordshire, participated in a House of Commons debate on Courts and Tribunals Fees. She spoke in favour of simplifying fee remission, and making the justice system more accessible and affordable.

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard from Monday 4 July 2016:

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con):

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and to follow such experienced and learned speakers from across the House. I will concentrate on courts and tribunal fees. I am grateful for the opportunity to have served on the Select Committee that produced this report, and I wholeheartedly endorse the report and its recommendations.

I want to focus not on the more newsworthy aspects of the report such as employment tribunals, but on the structure and remission of fees. It is critical that fees do not impede access to justice. Fees are useful, and indeed necessary, for two reasons. First, they help to pay for the justice system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) reminded us. Secondly, fees can be used effectively to deter frivolous and vexatious claimants. As ever, as has been said across the House this afternoon, getting the balance right is key. The introduction of fees before employment tribunals has clearly had an enormous impact on the number of cases issued, and it was right that we focused on that.

I know from speaking to many of my fellow barristers that fee increases have had a significant impact in other areas, particularly that of professional negligence. It is not the welfare of my fellow barristers that concerns me; it is the welfare of individuals such as those injured when medical treatment goes wrong and who cannot issue claims. That should be a matter of concern for us today.

The Justice Committee looked closely at fee structure and fee remission during our inquiry and received evidence from senior members of the judiciary, the Bar Council and the Law Society, among others. One suggestion to alleviate the deterrent effect of the increases was to allow fees to be met in a series of staged payments throughout the course of a claim. At first glance, staged fees seemed to be a good idea, but the suggestion was not universally supported by the evidence given to us by senior members of the judiciary. Both Lord Dyson and Sir James Munby were hesitant when questioned by the Committee about the concept of staging fees. Lord Dyson said specifically that it was not a proposal that he had previously thought about. He agreed that it was an interesting idea but voiced serious concerns about how fee staging might be used by respondents to put pressure on claimants at various stages of the litigation.

One solution, suggested by Sir Ernest Ryder, could be to adopt the Scottish civil justice model of requiring a respondent’s fee to be paid alongside sequential fees for claimants. This, he said, would level the playing field and place the risk more fairly on both parties. As the evidence did not point us clearly in one direction or another, the Committee’s proposal in this area is a tentative one. A graduated or sequential schedule of fee payments could be a positive step, but we feel that a pilot scheme should be carried out in the first instance to evaluate the best way to operate such a system.

I turn now to fee remission, and I shall again take employment tribunals as an example. To be successful in an application for remission, a claimant must first pass the disposable capital test and then the gross monthly income test. The claimant has to fill out a separate fee remission application for each court or tribunal fee. While taking evidence, we were given statistics about how many pages claimants had to fill in. The forms are clearly not simple. Thompsons Solicitors pointed out that the guidance booklet itself was 31 pages long. Major changes have been made with the introduction of a new, supposedly user-friendly way to deal with fee remission, which has now been rebranded as “help with fees”. There has clearly been some improvement but complexities remain. This is possibly symptomatic of the much wider problem of litigants in person not having a great deal of understanding of the system in which they have to operate. The situation clearly needs to be kept under review.

The Law Society has spent a considerable amount of time looking at fee remission in general and has called for the Ministry of Justice to introduce a system for regular re-rating of the remission thresholds to take account of inflation. It has also suggested that a further review of the affordability of civil court fees and the remission system should take place and that simplification in all areas should be considered. The Committee endorsed those proposals. Personally, I think that there is a lot of merit in the suggestion of enabling automatic remission for all basic rate taxpayers. That would simplify the system enormously. Fee structure and remission may not seem at first glance to be an obvious cause célèbre for reforming lawyers, but without structural change our justice system becomes less accessible and less affordable for those who need it.