Ministry of Justice did not use rigorous evidence to justify court fees hike – MPs

Justice committee warns the Ministry of Justice against seeking to "represent the quality of its evidence base to be higher than it is" after senior legal figures criticise research into court fees

By Civil Service World

20 Jun 2016

The Ministry of Justice failed to provide strong enough evidence to support its decision to sharply increase courts and tribunal fees, a committee of MPs has said.

Since 2010, the MoJ has sought to shift some of the cost for the justice system away from the public purse and towards people using the courts. 

That has included introducing fees of up to £1,200 for people seeking to challenge employers over unfair dismissal through tribunals; a substantial increase in the fees charged for financial claims; and a rise in the cost of divorce proceedings.

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The latest report from the justice committee says that while asking those who use the courts to contribute to their running costs is "not objectionable in principle", the introduction of fees to cover the full costs of action requires "particular care and strong justification", and takes the MoJ to task for failing to gather sufficient evidence to justify some of the rises.

The committee notes that the senior judiciary was "scathing about the quality of the research used by the ministry to inform its policy formulation", and points out that Lord Dyson – master of the rolls and head of Civil Justice – dismissed the MoJ's assessment of the likely impact of its fee hikes on access to justice as "lamentable".

While justice minister Shailesh Vara told the committee that Dyson had "completely ignored" elements of the ministry's research – which included two research papers by the MoJ's dedicated Analytical Services team – the committee comes down on the side of the legal chief.

It says: "The minister’s wish to defend the quality of the ministry’s research is understandable, but we share the view expressed by the senior judiciary and some others who gave evidence to us that the research which was conducted as part of the formulation of the ministry’s proposals in relation to courts and tribunals fees provides an insufficient basis to justify the ministry’s proposals."

While the MPs stress that this does not mean the MoJ's proposals are "unjustifiable" – and say they are aware that financial pressures facing the department mean it "does not always have the luxury to be as rigorous and meticulous in preparing the ground for controversial policies as it might wish" – they warn the MoJ against seeking to "represent the quality of its evidence base to be higher than it is".

The committee is also critical of the fact that a review into the impact of employment tribunal fees is yet to be published, saying there "can be no compelling reason to withhold from public view the factual information" contained in the study, which was launched by the MoJ over a year ago.

The MPs say they have received conflicting messages from the ministry about when the review is likely to be made public, and warn it is "unacceptable" that the government has yet to share the results "one year after it began and six months after the government said it would be completed".

They add: "We have not appreciated being strung along in this fashion; it has been detrimental to our work and occasioned public speculation about the reasons for the delay in production of our own report; and we view this as unhelpful and not good practice.

"As is often the case in inquiries of this kind, the evidence we have received has been preponderantly critical of the government’s position. It is impossible for us to gauge whether the case in support of the government’s policies would be strengthened by the outcome of its review, because they have not yet published it."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the department welcomed the report and would "consider the findings carefully".

And they defended the broader policy aim of court fees, adding: "The cost of our courts and tribunal system to the taxpayer is unsustainably high, and it is only right that those who use the system pay more to relieve this burden. Every pound we collect from fee increases will be spent on providing a leaner and more effective system of courts and tribunals.

"At the same time, we've made sure that the most vulnerable and those who cannot afford to pay won't have to."

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