Much has been written about the increase in court fees recently imposed on court users, culminating in the March 2015 introduction of a £10,000 maximum fee for money claims. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the legal profession has spoken with one voice, denouncing the government’s reasoning and warning of dire consequences for access to justice.
What has been notable, and is to be welcomed, is the approach of the judiciary and the willingness of senior judges to speak out against these fee increases. In December 2014, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Justice on behalf of the senior judiciary (the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Queen’s Bench Division, the President of the Family Division, the Chancellor of the High Court and Lord Justice Richards (Deputy Head of Civil Justice)) that was widely publicised. This letter pulled no punches, using less than diplomatic language in stating that the judges had “seen the response of the Civil Justice Council, and [that they shared] the deep concerns it expresses” about the fee increases.
As someone who attends various court user groups in the High Court, I have also had first-hand experience of judges candidly expressing their obvious disagreement with such high court fees. Comments have come from masters, High Court judges and Court of Appeal judges alike. Their comments demonstrate that our judiciary, if not our politicians, understand that the courts are there for the users, and that a fair judicial system requires fairness not only in the judging, but in the provision of the service and access to justice.
The wick was turned up even higher on 26 January 2016 when the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, appeared before the Justice Select Committee, along with Sir James Munby and Sir Ernest Ryder. Like Lord Thomas, he spoke frankly and forthrightly against the fees, describing the evidence relied on by the Ministry of Justice as “hopeless” and “lamentable”. Sir Ernest Ryder (the judge in charge of employment and immigration tribunals) added that the increase in fees for employment tribunals had resulted in 70% fewer claims, which he described as “an extraordinary position that demands an explanation”.
There are other illustrations of how engaged and modern our judiciary has become. For example, Sir Colin Birss has recently been “on tour”, giving presentations to a number of law firms and interest groups (including ALPS, the Association of Litigation PSLs) to promote and encourage use of the Shorter and Flexible trials initiative and the Financial List, both projects with which he is involved.
As someone who remembers judges like Sir Jeremiah Harman (he who knew of neither the band Oasis nor footballer Paul Gascoigne), I welcome the fact that our modern judges are no longer remote from court users. Whilst with their titles they may remain an integral part of “the Establishment”, they clearly care about the service they provide, and they are willing to speak out against our political leaders, as advocates for the courts. For that we should all be grateful.