The Ministry of Justice has recently announced an expansion of the eligibility criteria for the ‘Help with Fees’ scheme, a fee remission scheme with the goal of enhancing access to justice for the most vulnerable in society.
Introduced in 2013, the ‘Help with Fees’ scheme has subsidised the cost of court and tribunal fees for individuals on low income and those with little to no savings. This scheme applies across all courts and tribunals in England and Wales, and therefore covers a wide range of cases including housing issues and compensation claims for personal injuries.
The purpose of the scheme has been to ensure that no-one is denied access to justice simply because they cannot afford to pay a court fee. Provided they meet the eligibility criteria, applicants will either be eligible for a fee reduction or full fee remission. Apart from minor amendments in 2014 and 2021, the scheme has not been subject to substantial changes.
A consultation was launched by the Ministry of Justice in March 2023, which proposed a comprehensive set of reforms to ensure a more generous, better targeted and more efficient system. The consultation paper acknowledged the crucial importance of the scheme, noting that in the year 2021/22 alone, some £81 million in fee remissions was granted, being around 11% of the total value of fee charges that year. The paper also acknowledges the wider societal context for the proposed reforms, including in particular the economic challenges arising from a period of high inflation and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The key change which will now be implemented is the “significant raising” of the income and capital eligibility thresholds, with the stated aim of extending the current scheme to thousands more people. For example, for a single person with no children, the threshold would increase from £1,170 per month to £1,420.
The Ministry of Justice is also changing how the scheme is targeted, with the goal of better supporting the financially vulnerable, by (for example) recognising that income can fluctuate month-to-month, in order to make it easier for the self-employed and those who work variable shift patterns to qualify.
The scheme is also to be simplified in order to make it easier for litigants to use, including, for example, by allowing legal representatives to complete applications on their behalf.
These changes build upon other measures introduced by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year intended to enhance access to justice, including the extension of legal aid advice and representation to 6 million more people.