From 30 September 2021, court fees in respect of a number of family law applications are set to increase. Details of the increases can be found here.
Some of the most relevant are as follows:
- Divorce applications up from £550 to £592
- Standard Children Act applications up from £215 to £232
- Financial applications up from £255 to £275
Since I qualified as a family law solicitor in 2006, I have seen a number of increases in court fees which, in itself, is perhaps unsurprising. However, the court fee for issuing a divorce application has increased significantly from around £300 to almost twice that amount which begs the question why?
There was a consultation in relation to latest proposed court fee increases which opened in March 2021. The same can be found here.
In short, the result of that consultation was that 61% of responses disagreed with the proposal to increase court fees with some people feeling that it was the wrong time to increase the cost due to the impact of Covid-19 and other suggesting that the costs/increases were unjustifiable bearing in mind the quality of service provided by HMCTS in any event.
Notwithstanding the government has decided to impose the increases and it is anticipated that the same will raise an additional estimated gross income of between £20 million – £25 million per annum.
Is an increase justifiable?
It is unfortunately fair to say that the current family law court system is flawed. There are widespread delays and despite attempts to streamline the system and make it more “user friendly” there are still lots of failings and a real lack of consistency between different courts.
There are sometimes vast differences between the service levels at different court together with differing waiting times for hearings and/or court orders to be turned round. This, in turn, makes it difficult for solicitors to manage client’s expectations in terms of timeframes for matters to progress.
Standard undefended divorces can now be submitted and progressed online and, in some instances, this has led to a much speedier and easier process. We blogged back in January about a decree absolute (final divorce) being granted just 61 minutes after our application.
More recently we have beaten that record and had an application approved in just 3 minutes!
Family solicitors are now also required to submit any consent orders in relation to financial proceedings using an online portal which should hopefully improve speed and efficiency.
To a certain extent, one might imagine that the use of online systems would ultimately reduce manpower needed and costs, however, perhaps we are not there yet.
In any event, the government’s response in relation to the consultation was quick to point out that far from profiting from fees, less than half of the funding for HMCTS comes from court fees and in 2019/2020 there was a net fee income of £724m against £2bn running costs.
The justification given by the government for the increases is based on historic inflation.
Do I have to pay the court fee?
The court fees are not applicable in every case and if you have a low income, receive certain benefits and/or have little or no savings, you may not have to pay the court fee and you can find out more about this here.
At the same time that court fees are to be increased the income thresholds for receiving help will also increase which the government says is to help allow all court users access to justice.
What about other legal costs though?
Of course, the court fees are only part of the story and for many they are a small portion of the legal fees which they incur because legal advice from solicitors, barrister’s fees, expert evidence and so on are charged for separately.
The availability of legal aid for family disputes is restricted and so many people are left to meet these fees themselves or potentially go without legal advice.
What can be frustrating from a user perspective, is that at the same time that these court fees are being increased there is no real promise of an increase to the level of service and in addition to the extra fees paid to HMCTS often clients will find that they are having to pay for their legal representatives to chase the court on a regular basis to make some progress with their case.
There is also a limited scope for legal fees in family proceedings to be recovered from the other party even where you might feel that the other party’s actins caused the problem in the first place.
So, what is the answer?
It is difficult to know what the answer is in terms of improving the court system and court fees.
It is hoped that once the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic lessens, there is more usage of the online portals and the initial technological hiccups with the same are overcome then service levels will improve.
Further, there have also been a number of pilot schemes within the court system aimed at efficiency and avoiding unnecessary delay and hopefully we will reach a point where the best of those are taken on board and those which have not worked are not but until then the only option is really to work with in the systems that we have.
One thing which has become more prevalent is the use of telephone and video hearings and there are obviously points for and against those but, in terms of reducing legal fees for representation, they can sometimes be beneficial because travelling and waiting time can be saved.
Summary and conclusion
Realistically there is nothing we can do in terms of the increase of the court fees. Come 30 September 2021 they will go up. If you are minded to issue an application and have been waiting to effectively “press send” on that, you might want to do this now to avoid the increase, but it is often worth seeing the bigger picture with these things and it might not be worth rushing matters to then later to discover an error or that your haste has caused an emotional reaction that ultimately will cost you more in the future.
If you have any questions about the process, the court fees and/or the considerations in terms of making any family law application then please do not hesitate to contact us.