Following a debate in the House of Lords last week, and with only minimal notice to practitioners and Court staff on Thursday 17 March, and even less opportunity to advise clients, it was announced that the court fee for issuing a Divorce Petition would rise from £410 to £550.
Only a few days later on Monday, 21 March, the rise came into effect representing a staggering 34% increase.
Whilst a possible rise had been mooted back in July 2015, the corresponding public consultation resulted in an overwhelming 87% disagreeing with the increase, many describing it as “excessive”. Last’s week announcement was therefore met with much surprise.
Jo Edwards Chair of Resolution, a body of family lawyers and professionals committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes, commented that the “fee increase will lead to confusion, hardship and avoidable pain for separating couples”. Her concerns are being echoed throughout the legal profession.
From a purely financial perspective, it is understood that the actual cost incurred by the Ministry of Justice when issuing proceedings is £270. Arguably therefore divorcing couples are now facing a quasi divorce tax which serves only to generate significant profit at the expense of the family’s vulnerability, both emotionally and financially.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics indicate that 66% of all Petitions are issued by women. If the price rise becomes prohibitive, will they be forced to stay married, this being particularly detrimental for women trapped in abusive or violent marriages? The opportunity to claim costs back may hopefully negate this issue, although the extent to which would be difficult to review.
Separation is a difficult time for couples who are likely already under added financial strain, not to mention emotional pressure and facing uncertainty. With this arguably disproportionate rise, will couples now be forced to stay together and maintain legal and financial ties notwithstanding the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage?
Or more likely in most cases, the fee will be paid regardless albeit as Sir James Munby said “through gritted teeth”.