Yesterday the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, and the Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder gave evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee on the subject of courts’ and tribunals’ fees and charges. I thought I would comment upon some of what Sir James had to say to the Committee.
Early in the meeting the subject of the provision of information to litigants in person (LiPs) regarding help with fees (i.e. fee remission) was raised, and this led on to a discussion of the provision of information to LiPs generally. Sir James felt that shamefully little has been done in this regard, and described the provision of information as “woefully inadequate”, interestingly using the same word as I used in my post here just two days ago when I spoke about the support available to LiPs, and therefore saving me from the need to comment any further here.
On the same subject of help for LiPs Sir James went on to say that a lot more needs to be done to make the system more understandable, although he did point out that many forms had been improved by the use of clearer English. The whole question of making the system more understandable is, of course, fraught with difficulties, in particular the conflict between clarity and complexity – many legal terms convey complex meanings, and it is not always easy to express these in language that the lay person can easily understand.
Moving back to the subject of fees specifically, the topic of paying a fee at various stages during a case was raised. In this connection, Sir James said that he was not sure that it is right to make most of any fee payable towards the end of the proceedings, in connection with the final hearing, as in many cases the effort of the court and the court’s resources are actually deployed at an early stage in the proceedings, in an effort to resolve the case without going ‘all the way’. On the other hand, he said, if you want to incentivise people to settle, the last thing you want to do is to front-load the fee. Quite. Sir James also pointed out that there was the problem of what to do if a fee is not paid at a particular stage of the proceedings – there was then likely to be considerable ‘satellite litigation’ arguing over whether the case should be struck out or simply adjourned.
Later in the meeting Sir James was asked specifically about the proposed increase in the fee on issuing a divorce petition, from £410 to £550 (interestingly, Sir James didn’t seem to know the exact amount of the present fee). Sir James made the interesting point that, as with applying for probate, there was a ‘captive market’ for divorce, as those who seek a divorce have no choice but to use the system. In the light of this, he felt that raising the fee to £550 was not going to have much impact on numbers, especially as obtaining a divorce is the ‘gateway’ to making a financial claim. He therefore believes that increasing the fee is only likely to have an effect ‘at the margins’, although he did point out that women in particular will be disadvantaged by the increase, as they are, as a generalisation, still worse off than men.
It was also interesting to note that Sir James clearly expects the £550 fee to go up again in the near future, and I rather suspect he is right – those who were recently thwarted in their attempt to increase the fee to £750 will be back to get their own way.
The last topic that I want to mention here is the proposed new system for ‘paperless’ online divorce. With regard to the subject of fees, Sir James made the point that online divorce would be much cheaper than the present paper system and it would therefore make higher fees even harder to justify. Clearly, this must be true, although somehow I can’t see the fees being reduced when (and if) an online system goes… er… online.
On the subject of when and if an online divorce system is likely to happen, Sir James stated that he was disappointed with the progress that has been made, saying that the ability to deliver such a system was a question upon which the jury was still out, and that he still had no clear answer to such basic questions as what would be the overall timeline for implementing the system if it can be delivered. Clearly, we will still be using paper for the foreseeable future.
A video of the Justice Committee meeting, which lasted an hour and a half from 9.45am until 11.15am, can be found here (for some reason, the video starts at 9.30, so you’ll have to skip the first 15 minutes).