Profiting from Divorce
‘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.
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