Government admits overcharging public £18.4m in court fees

The Ministry of Justice has admitted overcharging the public by £18.4m in court fees in their 2017-18 annual report.

The majority is from charging the incorrect fees. Depending upon your income, people can claim an exemption to the court fee, this seems to be being done incorrectly.

Looking at fees for a divorce application, the court charge up to a maximum of £550. However, depending on your income or whether you receive benefits, you can be partially or fully exempt from this £550 court fee. For some, claiming this exemption is relatively easy, but for others, the Ministry of Justice makes it quite difficult to claim this exemption. The partial exemption is hardly advertised at all.

For example, a man with two dependent children earning £2000 per month looks to be well over the £1085 per month limit to claim court fee exemption. But this is not the case. He only needs to pay a court fee of £212.50, less than half of the standard court fee.

Middle-income earners are being led to believe that they are not exempt or partially exempt court fees, when in fact they are. People who are entitled often get rejected. When they make a claim, they often want to get the process moving and with the time it takes for the court to assess, they end up paying the full fee even though they don’t need to.

Increase in processing errors since digitalisation

Since the divorce system went digital, there has been a massive increase in processing errors at the 11 divorce centres in England and Wales.

Carol Sullivan, from Divorce Negotiator Ltd, recalls the following errors at the divorce centres:

East Midlands court replied  on 17 June 2019 to an email sent to them on 8 March 2019. That’s over three months.

Guildford court has still not approved a consent order sent to them in August 2018

West Midlands Divorce Centre are giving dates for decree nisi 12 weeks ahead. This used to be only 2 to 3 weeks from when the certificate of entitlement was received.

North West Divorce Centre (Liverpool) told one party he needed to tell the court where he had lived since separating from his wife. However, under the grounds of his divorce, there was no need to. This delayed his divorce substantially.

South West Divorce Centre has denied an application on the grounds of adultery even though the wife has had a baby with another man! He has evidence of her telling him as such.

With the courts being overwhelmed with the new system, they often pass their work to another court. This caused a problem with a client when the court issued a case number to the Petitioner and a different one to the Respondent.

There is also a disparity in how the courts want to receive the paperwork. Some courts want the paperwork one way and another court want it a different way. This is causing all sorts of problems.

One poor couple even had their petition sat on a court administrators desk for over three months and every time it was chased, they said they hadn’t received it.

This presents another problem. You cannot ring the court directly. The only phone number available is one for the Divorce call centre. They can only answer questions if the paperwork has been uploaded on to the case management system. If paperwork is waiting to be uploaded, there is nothing that can be done.

The Ministry of Justice is in the process of digitising Consent Orders. This is a much more complicated document compared to divorce applications, so we anticipate further delays in the divorce process.