Why we charge court fees
The civil and family courts in England and Wales are self-financing and are mostly funded by court fees paid by those people using court services.
The cost of running the civil and family courts is currently some £619m a year. Of this amount, 82 per cent is funded through court fees. The remaining 18 per cent is met by the general taxpayer as part of the resource budget of the Ministry of Justice.
The taxpayer’s contribution is made up of two elements:
- likely fee income lost under the system of fee remissions; and
- fees set below full cost levels (e.g. the fee charged does not cover the actual cost to the court to process the work being charged.
Court fees have to comply with legal and policy principles set by the Treasury. The aim is for fees to cover the full cost of court proceedings (but no more). Lower targets can be agreed where there is a sound policy justification.
The remission scheme protects access to justice for the less well off. Therefore the taxpayer makes, and will continue to make, a significant contribution to the cost of running the civil and family courts.
Appropriate financial targets ensure that the system is fair to the taxpayer (and, therefore, users of other public services). In particular, the policy of full-cost recovery ensures that as far as possible users pay for the service they receive.
The following (non-exhaustive) list gives a small insight into the extent court fees go towards financing the courts:
- accommodation (court buildings) and furnishings;
- running court buildings (utilities);
- salaries and expenses court staff and Judiciary;
- information technology and telephone systems;
- new and on-ongoing maintenance;
- stationery, office equipment and resources; and
- shared costs from Ministry of Justice - e.g. human resources, training etc
The recovery of the cost of running the courts in England and Wales has a very long and complex history dating back to the 13th century.
Fees have always been charged to users of the courts. Originally, fees were paid directly to the judges of the courts, who kept them personally, for the work they carried out.
The most significant shift in court fees as we know them today came during the 19 th Century. Major reforms of public administration were made under the reign of Queen Victoria and the premiership of Robert Peel (founder of the Metropolitan Police).
The County Courts Act 1846 saw the creation of the court system (mostly how we know it today) and the introduction of judicial salaries. The Act provided that court fees would cover the full cost of running the courts, and through this, the courts would be self-funding.
Court fees paid for judges, clerks, bailiffs and accommodation. However, in 1856, it was accepted that judges’ salaries, buildings and ancillary expenses should be met by the taxpayer and not the court user through fees.
From 1886 – 1910, fees provided a surplus against the whole expenditure of the Supreme Court. This included the cost of Assizes (periodical criminal court sittings which became the single Crown Court in 1972) and the Lord Chancellor’s Department, with the exception of the salaries and pensions of judges.
From 1912 – 1918, the cost of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division was covered as well. However, this was achieved in large part through the surplus monies from non-contentious probate fees – a cross-subsidy that would not be acceptable today.
After the First World War, the MacNaghten Report on the Supreme Court of 1922 considered it an “authoritative” principle that the salaries and pensions of judges should be paid by the State, and the rest through fees. The 1923 MacNaghten Report on the County Courts noted the view that the cost of judges and buildings should be borne by the State.
During the mid-20th Century, subsequent reviews and debates rarely looked behind these conclusions. Inflation meant periodical fee increases were necessary, but probate fees generally remained stable and covered a higher percentage of the cost of running the courts.
In 1982, the then Lord Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury carried out a joint review, and reached agreement that the full cost of civil court services, excluding judicial costs, be recovered from fees in future.
In 1992, the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Secretary agreed to change this policy to one of generally basing fees on the full cost, including judicial costs.
Over the past few years, government policy has been generally to set fees based on full cost, while ensuring protection of access to justice for those of modest means through the remission scheme.