Profiting from Divorce

Frederick Wilmot-Smith

‘We are on familiar ground,’ Lord Faulks said. Another increase to court fees, another futile motion of regret in the House of Lords. Fees for an uncontested divorce petition – which costs, on average, £270 to process – went up from £410 to £550. Government profits from divorce are set to increase.

The government consulted with the public before putting up the fees; 87 per cent of those who responded were opposed to the increase. Our objections had some effect: the government had wanted to charge £750. No explanation is offered for the figure of £550. The only reason the government has ever given for fee increases is that it wants to shrink the role of the state in funding the justice system. This places no rational limit on the sums that can be charged. Lord Faulks is explicit: ‘The purpose of these reforms is to increase fee income.’

The risks of the reforms are unknown. Lord Dyson, the head of civil justice in the United Kingdom, said in January that the research carried out by the Ministry of Justice before it introduced ‘enhanced’ court fees last year was ‘hopeless’ and ‘lamentable’. The government now seems to stand by only one study, by Ipsos MORI, into ‘the role of court fees in affecting users’ decisions to bring cases to the civil and family courts’. As the report says, the findings, based on interviews with 31 civil court claimants and 23 family court applicants, 'are not statistically representative of the views of all claimants and applicants’. The interviewees had all litigated in the previous year, so anyone already deterred by cost was not considered.

Even if its conclusions are correct, they cannot justify fee increases. People were unlikely to be deterred from litigation by increased fees, the report found, because they thought ‘they had no alternative but to bring their case.’ Only the state can dissolve a marriage; when it comes to divorce, therefore, there is absolutely no alternative. The ‘primary reason’ for litigation was ‘emotional motivations’. One interviewee went to court ‘to get custody of my son and keep him in a safe environment’. Profiting from a monopoly required only by those under enormous emotional strain is exploitation.

Only one MP voted against the increases in the House of Commons; only two lords spoke against them in the House of Lords. This indicated, Lord Faulks suggested, ‘some acceptance’ that the fees are ‘a sensible step’. The other explanation, political apathy, is scarcely more comforting.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Frederick Wilmot-Smith: Court Cuts · 30 July 2015

Stephen Sedley: Judicial Misconduct · 17 December 2015

Jacqueline Rose: The Trial of Oscar Pistorius · 19 November 2015

John Upton: No Bail for Mr X · 29 October 1998


  • 24 March 2016 at 2:54pm
    countrymile says:
    Why does the government insist on being involved with marriages (and their dissolution)? The recent change in allowing gay marriage lacked the anyone arguing for getting the state out of people's personal affairs.

    • 28 March 2016 at 2:20pm
      bahis says: @ countrymile
      i totally agree with you

  • 25 March 2016 at 8:24am
    cufflink says:
    This is surely a case of the Government getting it nearly right in so far as presnt circumstances require it to raise revenue equitably whenever occasion arises.
    There should of course be a scale of charges according to income but the amounts involved would not justify the administrative bureaucracy. Unfortunately the revenue will go to the Exchequer and not repose in the Courts as virement potential to support legal aid.
    When people marry there is much excessive expense given to it, far in excess of these amounts of duty being levied.
    The issue is not one of 'Ship Duty' so this cavalier reply from me does not start a war - what might is the increase in insurance premium duty.
    I try not to think of my eventual funeral expenses and understand that there is a quid pro quo of a Death Benefit from the Exchequer.

    • 29 March 2016 at 1:30pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ cufflink
      In some instances, the increase in fees (to a figure more than double the actual average cost of the proceedings) will prolong unhappy and even abusive relationships, potentially endangering partner(s) or children. Is this really worth it, to raise a measly few hundred grand for the government?

  • 27 March 2016 at 6:53pm
    streetsj says:
    For most couples the last place they wanted to be was the divorce court and for most it is a time of financial hardship, piling on some more agony is cynical at best.
    A better system would be to levy a 1% levy on settlements above, say, £500,000.

  • 29 March 2016 at 8:38pm
    John Cowan says:
    "Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus, aut differemus rectum aut justiciam." Or in English: "To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice." Magna Carta 40.

    What a disgrace.

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