Update: since we published this story last night, it has caused quite a stir. The Law Society Gazette called to ask about our source and the Ministry of Justice subsequently confirmed that the fees will indeed increase on Monday, ‘subject to parliamentary approval’: a curious phrase, which at such a late stage, cannot mean more than a rubber-stamping exercise. I was quoted in their report, and Resolution has since condemned the increase as well. Meanwhile my Twitter mentions have filled with supportive comments from concerned lawyers angry at the implications and at the way the government seems to have tried to sneak this scandalous rise in under the radar.
The news today has been dominated by Chancellor George Osborne’s latest budget. It proved, of course, to be the unusual unappetising menu of tax hikes and spending cuts, as the government ploughs on with the bleak austerity agenda it has pursued so single-mindedly since 2010. Despite all their slash-and-burn efforts, of course, the much discussed national deficit has risen dramatically since then.
Some economists argue that the correct approach to national debt is to keep the money flowing and encourage growth through spending, not tie yourself up in knots trying to balance the books like an anxious street corner shopkeeper. But that is a discussion for another day. What really caught my eye today was a quiet announcement in the company inbox from one of our secretaries.
She had been notified by East Midlands Divorce Unit – one of the 11 recently centralised divorce courts across the country. It declared that from next week (21st March), the fee charged by divorce courts will increase by a steep 34 per cent, from £410 to £550. Every couple going through a divorce will have to pay this fee, even those who settle their differences through mediation.
The news is not a complete bolt from the blue: plans to hike up the fees have been in the pipeline for some time, causing considerable concern amongst both lawyers and judges. In December, family law organisation Resolution urged MPs to abandon the idea, and senior judges have twice gone on the record with similar remarks.
In October, the Judicial Executive Board said an increase would lead to a sharp drop in on the number of people who could access the court system, adding that there was “something unappetising about the state making a growing profit on a legal necessity and a source of unhappiness for many people”.
A month later, they were at it again, with Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson talking about the “real dangers” presented by such a sharp increase.
Quite. But predictably the government has ploughed on regardless and now the increase is almost here. The bottom line is all that matters it seems.
So from next week, the government will be generating almost £300 in profit from every divorce: the actual administrative cost of divorce is just £270. This is, from any perspective, a pretty outrageous imposition on a captive audience who will have little choice but to pay up – effectively a ‘misery tax’.
In my view, a far fairer and more reasonable approach would be tiered pricing – smaller, more graduated fees payable according to the course of the divorce in question. Why should those who manage to resolve their differences through mediation pay the same as those who push on to a far more expensive courtroom? Of course, that would require administration and organisation: it far easier, it would appear, to just impose a blunt instrument with which to whack every divorcing couple around the head.
The government seems determined to continue its steady demolition of the legal system.