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Courts set to close as fees rise

Royal Courts of Justice (England)

Over the last couple of years, the UK Government has introduced a range of new reforms and measures aimed at reducing the cost of running the legal sector. These changes have been met with widespread criticism by solicitors, legal bodies and even the general public, all of whom say that the reforms have reduced access to justice for thousands of people across the country.

While many in the legal sector were hoping for an end to these cuts following the 2015 general election, this isn't the case, and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has now revealed its latest cost-cutting measures; this time it’s planning to cut the cost of the UK’s court system (HMCTS).

Courts will be closed under new proposals

In a recent report, Lord Chancellor Michael Gove indicated that around a fifth of the UK’s magistrates’ courts could close in order to save money. In a more detailed explanation, Mr Gove said that 91 courts and tribunals will close, while a further 31 will be integrated. Overall, 257 magistrates’ court rooms in the UK will close along with 21 Crown court rooms.

Justice Minister, Shailesh Vara added that the current court estate, which consists of 460 hearing centres, costs the taxpayer around half a billion pounds a year, and that about 50% of the estate is currently underused. He indicated that the disposal value of the freehold buildings the MoJ plans to close is around £35m. By shutting the courts, the MoJ will be able to save around £30m a year by 2020, this includes a £6m saving in staff costs. Mr Vara continued to say that the majority of the public wouldn't experience any knock-on effect from the closures as around 95% of the population will remain within an hour’s drive of a court.

Court fees are set to rise

In addition to court closures, the MoJ revealed in an on-going consultation (that closes on 15 September) that some court fees could double later this year. In the consultation, Shailesh Vara announced that the maximum fee for money claims will rise from £10,000 to £20,000; currently, fees are payable at 5% of the value of a claim up to a maximum of £10,000. Furthermore, Mr Vara explained that clinical negligence and personal injury claims will be excluded from the higher cap, while fee remissions will still apply for people ‘of limited means’.

In a detailed breakdown, the MoJ said that immigration and asylum fees will double (although exemptions will be allowed to protect the most vulnerable in society). Fees for possession claims will increase from £280 to £355, while fees for divorce proceedings will increase from £410 to £550. Finally, fees for general applications by consent in civil proceedings will rise from £50 to £100, and fees for contested applications will increase from £155 to £255.

The MoJ added that the new charges will generate around £100m in additional income every year, but that the HMCTS will still cost around £1bn more a year to run than it receives in income from fees etc.

Mr Vara finished by saying that the MoJ recognises that fee rises are not popular, but that they are necessary. Nevertheless, the news that courts will close and fees will rise is yet another blow to the legal sector, which is still recovering from earlier cuts.

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