A headline I read this morning appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with family law, but it got me thinking about how the future could look for people wishing to commence litigation of any type, including family law. And a pretty bleak picture it is too.
The story was about an enormous drop in employment tribunal claims since the introduction of fees for employment tribunals last summer. According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of claims received by tribunals for the period October to December 2013 was 9,801, a reduction of 79% compared to the same quarter in 2012.
Prior to the 29th of July 2013 there were no fees payable on applications to employment tribunals. Since that date applicants have had to pay one fee when issuing their application and a further fee if the application should go to a hearing. Depending upon the type of claim, the total fees could amount to as much as £1,200. With fees like that, it’s no wonder that many people can’t afford to go to the tribunal.
Of course, it’s a great scam for the government. They kill two birds with one stone – simultaneously bringing in some income and reducing the cost of the system, as fewer claims mean less need for tribunals.
How is all of this relevant to family law? Well, as regular readers will know, the Ministry of Justice is presently consulting upon the reform of court fees. One of their proposals is to increase the fee payable upon the filing of a divorce petition from £410 to £750. This is what they euphemistically call an ‘enhanced fee’, and is about three times their estimate of the cost of uncontested divorce proceedings.
How can such a fee be justified? The nice people at the Ministry say this:
“…we believe that divorcing couples would be prepared to pay a higher fee to complete the dissolution of the marriage. We believe that it is right that those who can afford to pay more should do so to ensure that the courts are properly funded.”
I’m sorry? Who would be ‘prepared to pay a higher fee’? I can’t think of anyone. As for the second part of their argument, the suggestion that everyone who is getting divorced can afford to pay more is just absurd. The fact of the matter is that, notwithstanding that some people on low incomes are exempt from paying fees, such a fee will mean that many people will simply not be able to afford to get divorced.
So, is the experience of the employment tribunal a vision of things to come for family law? The proposal to increase divorce fees is being opposed by many (not least the judiciary), but it could still happen. Imagine the misery that would be caused if three-quarters of those who wanted to get divorced could not afford to do so.
I know that times are still hard, and that there is still a huge deficit in government spending, but pricing people out of access to justice is surely not the way forward. As we all know, if you can’t afford to enforce your rights, then you effectively don’t have any.
Photo by NoHoDamon via Flickr