Protecting open and accessible justice: your help needed

The principles of open and accessible justice are key for all liberals, but they are principles that have been challenged in government by the woeful condition of the public finances and the Conservative appointments to the office of justice secretary. The Justice and Security Act and legal aid cuts have been bitter pills indeed for Liberal Democrats to swallow.

Today, another concerning reform takes effect, namely a significant increase in the fees for bringing what are known as “money claims” in the civil courts. They cover everything from serious injury claims to small businesses seeking to recover unpaid invoices.

For a long time litigants have been charged a fee at various points in the litigation process. This is correct in principle: court users should contribute to the cost of running the system. Fees also discourage vexatious or unmeritorious claims. The fees have historically been relatively modest.

I actually support some increase in those fees, as well as the change to link the fee more directly to the value of the claim.

However, today’s increases are potentially much too significant. They increase the initial fee payable to 5% of the value of the claim, subject to a maximum fee of £10,000. That is a several-fold increase for many litigants.

The potential for access to justice to be impeded is clear. For individuals and businesses the cost of recovering what is due to them has gone up massively.

Legal practitioners and many senior judges raised concern about such a large increase during the consultation process, but the Ministry of Justice was undeterred.

I am therefore submitting the following amendment to the manifesto motion to be debated on Saturday, calling for an early review of the legal aid cuts and these fee increases before summer 2016, examining the impact on access to justice. If reforms are then needed to rectify the situation, I hope we can implement them if we are fortunate enough to still be in power:

After line 64 add:

“d) Carrying out an early review, within the first year of the next parliament, of the recent changes to legal aid and to court fees for bringing civil money claims in order to assess any impact on access to justice.”

I am pleased that Liberal Democrat justice minister Simon Hughes is supporting the call for such a review.

If you can support the amendment and are a conference voting rep please email me your name, membership number and local party name on nthornsby AT gmail.com.

 

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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5 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Mar '15 - 3:42pm

    Thanks Nick. I agree that the proposed fee increases are too much, but I don’t agree with talk about “court users”. I think justice should be free at point of use and I don’t feel it is left wing to say so. It makes me feel despair that the fees are actually going to be increased.

    Regards

  • James Sandbach 10th Mar '15 - 1:53pm

    I will of course support and thanks for raising this, what’s depressing though is that apart from a handful of lawyers in the Party, our people show such a disinterest in what’s really been going on within the justice system, the implications of some of the reforms pursued first by Ken Clarke then by Chris Grayling, despite as you say principles of open and accessible justice should be key for all liberals.

    Once you legislate that that even the most basic level of legal aid funded advice should be restricted to only a few areas of law like human rights and criminal, you have effectively abolished legal aid for everything else and that is what has happened. If you then add on court fees, making it impossible for anyone without dedicated funded to litigate to be able to get their case into the system at all. The courts are now becoming instruments of state and corporate power rather than a redress forum for citizens – if you just look at the current MoJ data on civil claims, landlord and creditor claims against tenants and debtors are going up, but all mostly undefended on the other side. Small claims, consumer cases, judicial review, family applications however ie citizens’ rights driven claims- are all plummeting down. Furthermore cost rules have been changed so that even lawyers’ now win no fee arrangements, you can no longer fully recover costs and the risks of losing and exposure to costs against you have grown. And finally more barriers put in place to judicial review.

    All this before you even get onto some of the policy travesties and punitive measures that have occurred in criminal justice and the prison system where conditions have worsened and suicides have gone up.

  • Philip Thomas 10th Mar '15 - 7:50pm

    Are we in government or not? Have we made any effort to oppose the legal aid cuts and the increases in fees? If we have, why have we failed? If we have not, isn’t it a bit late to whine about it now? The courts have been better at opposing the cuts than we have- striking down various unlawful pieces of secondary legislation: but the courts can’t fight for ever, eventually the Tories will word their primary legislation widely enough to achieve their goals.
    The withdrawal of legal aid funding has, if it has saved money at all, saved a completely trivial amount, at a price of reduced access to justice and greater cost to society.

  • Philip Thomas 10th Mar '15 - 7:59pm

    It also regressive to cap fees at £10,000- larger claims are likely to be made by richer claimants (who have more to lose and so more to claim compensation for)

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