The Ministry of Justice has defended the up to 55p a minute charge to call its online court advice helpline, saying there is "no evidence" that it deters people from using the service.
Responding to a written question last week, justice minister Lucy Frazer said HM Courts and Tribunals Service's use of 0300 and 0141 phone numbers was in line with government guidance.
“There is no evidence to suggest that call charges are deterring people from using our services, as we dealt with more than 46,000 calls last month alone," Frazer said.
The HMCTS operates several helplines that people can call for advice on how to use its services. The contact page on its website lists four 0300 helplines for information about divorce proceedings; money claims; probate; and social security and child support tribunals in England and Wales. Charges to these numbers on some networks are 50p per minute plus a once-per-call 50p access charge.
A fifth helpline for advice on social security and child support tribunals in Scotland uses an 0141 number, which can cost as much as 55p a minute for Vodafone customers, or 50p a minute plus a once-per-call 50p access charge for people on the EE network.
Frazer was answering a question from shadow justice minister Yasmin Qureshi about whether the MoJ had carried out an assessment of the charge's effect.
"The helplines are not premium lines and do not generate revenue," Frazer said.
She added that other government departments used 0300 numbers including HM Revenue and Customs and the Home Office, as well as external organisations such as the BBC, the RSPCA, Oxfam and Ofcom.
The Home Office uses 0300 numbers for several helplines, including for asylum support, indefinite leave to remain applications and the EU settlement scheme. The last attracted criticism last month.
Others Home Office numbers, including the phone line set up to help people applying to the Windrush scheme, are free to call.
Guidance published by the Cabinet Office in 2015 said 01, 02 and 03 should be the “default number prefixes” for phone lines operated by government departments and other public bodies because they are “charged at standard geographic rates and are always included in available minutes within call packages”.
“Consequently, these prefixes are likely to represent the most cost effective telephone lines for the majority of the public and they are simple to understand,” the guidance said.
“It is inappropriate for callers to pay substantial charges for accessing core public services, particularly for vulnerable and low-income groups,” it added. The guidance did not specify how much is considered a “substantial charge”.
In October 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions was forced to change its Universal Credit helpline from an 0345 number – which was set to cost up to 45p a minute – to a freephone 0800 number after concern that it would place a financial burden on benefit claimants.
The cost of calling 0300 numbers varies. Many mobile networks allow customers to make calls to these numbers using minutes included in their monthly contracts, making them effectively free, but charges apply when minutes are not used.