This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 5 April 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission.
The government’s latest tax on justice will hit separating partners – and family practitioners – hard.
On 21 March, the administrative court fee for issuing a divorce petition rose by over a third, from £410 to £550.
Not only was the fee increase itself met with hostility from the profession, but the way in which it was communicated (or, more accurately, not communicated very well) did not go down well at all. Although these plans have been in the pipeline for some time, the change was certainly made quickly and conveyed poorly.
Resolution described the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) decision as ‘scandalous and not backed up by a proper assessment… with no formal consultation or announcement’. In practice, this seemingly rushed decision has meant that many couples who are in the process of separating have been given incorrect information, particularly bearing in mind the common approach of allowing the respondent a reasonable period of time to digest the contents and implications of a draft divorce petition before proceedings are commenced.
Originally, the MoJ had proposed a rise to £750, but because the actual administrative cost of divorce is priced at £270 – by the government itself – it means the recent changes equate to a hike of 100 per cent.
Despite being described as ‘more affordable’ by the MoJ, this has led many critics to describe the move as a ‘tax on misery’, particularly when considering the fact that it has to be paid no matter what route the parties take in bringing their marriage to an end. This fact is important to bear in mind: the petition fee has to be paid in order to obtain a divorce, whether the process is a hostile one or not, something that arguably makes the £550 fee even harder to justify and/or swallow.
The reasoning behind the shift is to boost funding for the justice system, ironically, perhaps, when many critics have stated it will limit equal access to justice. Although this rationale is (in my opinion) more palatable than any attempt to make couples think twice about divorcing, it does not change the reality of the situation. Some people have argued that an increase in costs could, in some cases, lead to an increase in acrimony between the parties to a divorce. Furthermore, with cohabiting couples becoming the fastest-growing family type in the UK, it can also be said that escalating the costs of splitting up will add to the list of reasons why many couples opt not to marry and will simply serve to encourage more people to cohabit as opposed to marrying.
In addition to the impact on separating couples, family solicitors could be progressively priced out of a role. With an ever-growing number of litigants in person and people opting for online divorces, never mind the piloting of the same by courts next year, the increase to the divorce fee is another reason people will likely choose to opt for a DIY divorce over instructing a family solicitor.