All of our first year law undergrads took part in an exercise in week one of their LLB where they escaped City and went to visit a number of buildings of significance in the local area, before tackling some research questions.
They were then asked to write a blog post inspired by their travels. 21 winners were selected from all those posts submitted – this is one of those – thanks to Anna Skeens Blincow.On my visit to the Royal Courts of Justice last week, I saw many people protesting outside. Although there were a variety of issues being addressed by a diverse group of people, there was a common theme throughout: human rights. Whatever the concern that these demonstrators were protesting; from abortion to trade union issues, they were all outside such a significant and historical building fighting for rights for the citizens of both the UK and internationally. Standing there myself, with no current problems of my own that would need a court hearing, it struck me how difficult and demanding it is to not only campaign for a cause but to go to court over issues where human rights are at stake, no matter how small the case. This consequently brought up another problem that has arisen recently; the drastic rise in court fees. In 2012, court fees rose considerably but it was the more recent increase which was enforced on 9th March 2015 that has caused major concern.
Both in the newspapers and on websites, I saw the same headlines; “Court fees are a breach of human rights” “Increases in court fees will impact access to justice” among many others. The decision which was made on 9th March this year saw increases of up to 600% in court fees. This highly controversial and criticised decision saw chaos within the courts with around 50 magistrates resigning, causing a judicial revolt in reaction to this decision labelled by a High Court Judge as “extremely unfair”. The main argument against the increase surrounds the idea of breaching human rights for several reasons. Firstly, Phil Bowen, director of the CJI (Centre for Justice Innovation) evaluates this increase as a “tax on justice” as well as being “emerging evidence of how the charge is…undermining defendant’s perceptions of fairness in our courts”. Similarly, the Lord Chief Justice claims how the fees which reach £7,500 on a claim of £150,000 were a “matter of grave concern” and may have “damaging consequences for access to justice”, due to the “disproportionately adverse impact on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and litigants in person”, thus highlighting how small businesses are being priced out of justice whilst letting banks and other big businesses off the hook, without punishment. This was evident in five recent cases where small businesses had been victims but could not afford to take legal action due to the rise in the court fees. Thus, illustrating the discriminating effect this increase has and will continue to have on small businesses and individuals; particularly when positioned against large powerful corporations or businesses.
The rise also brings another concern regarding human rights. The fact that charges were counted as a secondary piece of legislation, meant escaping any human rights assessment; somewhat explaining how such a damaging decision how could be put into effect so easily. Mike Hough, a professor of criminal policy at Birkbeck School of Law makes an exceptional explanation of the detrimental impact that this increase will have; asking “How can you have the right to a fair trial if you can only have one if you can pay for it? Article six gives people the right to a fair trial. I can’t see that you can have the right to a fair trial if you have to pay £1,200 to the court for it if you lose. It provides an added incentive to plead guilty even when you are innocent.” Thus this concise judgement on the recent reform emphasises the direct impact on innocent people and the clear violation of human rights.
Law Society President Jonathan Smithers explains how he believes the “government is effectively attempting to impose a financial penalty for exercising a statutory right” and is “treating justice like a commodity” and will result in the harmful consequences; thus “Justice will be out of reach for many ordinary people.” Therefore, such an easy reform with no real assessment, will result in such a destructive outcome, clearly conflicting against the European Convention on Human Rights, thus violating rights and consequently playing a major part in risking destroying the “legitimacy and public trust in the system” (Lord Chief Justice).
Hence, it is very much evident how this increase will have such a negative and criticised impact on human rights within the UK, and how such a politically central institution such as the Royal Courts of Justice will now be considered as just another government controlled establishment which denies and prevents citizens from achieving legal rights and the right to a fair trial. Surely, this increase must be re-assessed and the fees reduced if basic human rights are to be properly enforced within the UK.