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Divorce fee hike: a good day to bury bad news? (update)

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.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. russell armstrong says:

    Whilst I feel for your outrage at the hikes in the charges it would be my opinion that the less the state can meddle in your affairs the better. Therefore I will be encouraging my son and daughter to never get married and therefore avoiding such things as having a money oriented driven woman/man marry him/her to gain a cut of his/her money if the relationship should fail and she/he go after any cash and property that I should happen to have left to him/her in their inheritance (thereby allowing the courts to intervene and come to a “reasonable” and “fair” share poppy cock judgement).
    If, on the other hand, they were to decide to marry a person far richer than them then I would encourage the opposite for exactly the same reasons
    Cynical? You bet, but based upon a court system that is neither fair or equitable and the sooner that upheld pre-nups are brought into the equation the better.
    If the system has rules that I find to be unfair and there is a way that one can keep the states hands out of my and everybody else’s inalienable right as responsible adults to make their own decisions then that is exactly what I am going to do and guide my children to do likewise.
    Even if that means, because the law decides to close this right, then I will encourage them to NEVER go into a full time relationship with anybody.
    I hope the states is happy with creating a system that has the inability to decide an outcome based on the events and means prior going into the relationship and those that are built up during the marriage.
    I’m sorry if that offends anybody but there you go, its my own personal opinion and that’s just the way I roll

  2. Luke says:

    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.
    Here’s the problem – we’ve tried the ‘encourage growth through spending’ tactic for a very long time – partly because it’s easier than having to make hard decisions that people don’t want to hear about. As a result the debt is now 1.6 TRILLION pounds…

  3. Andrew says:

    Or of course we could abandon the pretence that divorce is a judicial process and make it purely administrative in which case it need not cost more than being married by the Registrar – probably at the same office.

    • JamesB says:

      I agree with Andrew on the divorce process.

      Probably not on the subject of ancillary relief. That however is how the lawyers make their money, and I think but am not sure that Andrew is a lawyer, a solicitor to be specific. If my memory serves me right there was an Andrew on here who said he was a solicitor. Think is this one.

      • Andrew says:

        Guilty as charged, James!
        But I believe in cast iron enforceable pre-nups and where there is none in equal division regardless of perceived needs, with postponement where necessary during the minority of issue, and strict Calderbank to encourage realism and discourage greed; and that parties should be allowed to settle their differences without judicial approval.
        All of which would mean fewer cases coming to court and would tend to put the divorce lawyers out of business!

        • JamesB says:

          Ok, we agree on enforceable pre nups also.

          Struggling to find something we disagree on.

          I think I disagreed with you twice, if I remember rightly. Once on ability to put child maintenance in pre nups, I said you should and you said you shouldn’t. Once on cost of pre-nup. I said they should be more like wills and less than £1000 and you said £1000 was too cheap and should be more than that.

          Anyway, as I age I become more pragmatic and regard you as a decent an honourable bloke.

          Are you a divorce lawyer?

          There are decent lawyers, I have met some. I even know decent divorce lawyers. At least 4. Is bad law that causes the problems, on that I think we agree also. as I said struggling to find stuff we disagree on.

  4. JamesB says:

    The things we disagree on don’t bother me much at all. If we were in a political party they would be considered negligible, I would even be prepared to disregard them for a decent meal, or a cabinet position, or another road bridge over the river to aid congestion. Far smaller than the distance between Cameron and Boris on Europe for instance. I need to leave this for a while now. Best regards to you all.

  5. JamesB says:

    I regard what we disagree on as negligible and probably worth giving up for reform and would vote for whatever you propose if it gets the lawyers on side of reform especially.

    I see lawyers making money on pre nups as a way to stop them arguing against the necessary reform of the MCA 1973.

  6. JamesB says:

    Now I really do need to go. Best regards to you all.

  7. Andrew says:

    Don’t think it’s just divorce litigants who are being persecuted. The fee for an application in the civil courts is going up from £155 to £255 and if by consent from £59 to £100!

  8. Andrew says:

    Typo: £50 to £100.

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