What price justice?

Tucked away on the Government News Network
website in November came the news of proposed changes to court fees in
civil cases. These changes took effect on 4 January 2005 and should be
detailed on the Court Service Website (www.courtservice.gov.uk). However, at the time of writing no information on the new fees was available on the site.

It
is not surprising that the government has not wanted too much attention
to be drawn to the changes. Some of the fee increases have been
astronomic, especially for High Court users.

To issue a claim in either the county court or the High Court will now cost between £100 and £900 more than it did last year.

A sliding scale has been introduced for higher value claims, with fees payable of between £1,100 and £1,700.

As
libel claims must be pursued in the High Court rather than county
court, publishers, as High Court users, will be one of the groups most
affected by the changes.

A claimant in libel proceedings, who
does not limit the amount he expects to be awarded at trial, and who
also asks the court for an injunction to stop repetition of the libel,
will now have to pay £2,100 just to issue the claim (an increase of
£1,120). In 2000 the same fee was £620, which even then seemed high to
many court users. Between issuing the claim and the start of trial
there are further stages at which payment of court fees are triggered.
During this stage of proceedings all claimants will have to pay a
minimum of £800 in further court fees (this is apart from the
additional legal costs of solicitors and counsel).

From April
2005 a completely new charge will also be introduced: an hourly fee for
trials in the High Court and Court of Appeal, akin to the fixed court
costs and charges used in the German legal system. Again, there is
little published information on how much the new charge will be and how
it will be operated. Current speculation is that the fee will be in the
region of £200 per hour, payable up-front as a deposit before a trial
starts, with a top-up payable at the end of proceedings if a trial
lasts longer than anticipated. For a one-week trial, the fee could
therefore be in the region of £7,000.

Only very few means-tested individuals will be exempt from paying the new fees.

Courts
Minister Christopher Leslie said: “Where people can afford to pay the
fees involved in court proceedings the taxpayer should not be expected
to pay. The majority of civil court proceedings involve individuals or
businesses. Access to justice is an important principle for this
government, but we need to balance this with the need to protect the
interests of taxpayers.” But for many businesses the fees are hardly
affordable. Many publishers will now find themselves settling claims at
an early stage, even where merits are dubious, because to do otherwise
or to settle soon after the issue of proceedings could mean being
liable to pay the claimant’s costs and the court fees.

In November 1998 the Lord Chancellor said that fees should not prevent access to justice.

In his recent speech to the Society of Editors, Lord Falconer said on the subject of the fees payable on making requests under the Freedom of Information Act : “No individual should be priced out of the right to know.” It remains to be seen whether the fees payable under the FOI regime will increase in the same way as Court fees have done.

Anna Doble is a litigation lawyer with specialist media firm Wiggin & Co

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