ET fees income: don’t spend it all at once, Chris

In recent months, faced with a strong aversion to transparency and openness on the part of the Ministry of Justice, there has been much speculation about just how much money the Ministry is making from its justice-denying ET fees regime. Well, there has been in my house. Back in 2012, officials indicated that they were looking to receive at least £10 million a year in ET fees, whilst the Ministry’s original ‘cost recovery’ target of 33 per cent implied an annual fee income nearer to £25 million. But, with the startling drop in the number of claims since the introduction of fees in July last year, even the lower of these two figures has looked increasingly unrealistic.

In May, the justice minister, Shailesh Vara, declined to answer a parliamentary question by shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter seeking a fee income figure to date, on the grounds that “financial information relating to fees and remissions in the ET system will be published [in July] by HMCTS in its Annual Report and Accounts”.  Well, that 108-page report, covering the financial year 2013-14, has now been published by HMCTS.  And, buried away on page 85, there are some interesting figures on ET fee income and remission up to 31 March 2014.

In the eight-month period 29 July 2013 to 31 March 2014, gross income from ET fees was £5.149 million, of which £0.680 million (13.2 per cent) was foregone in fee remission.  That represents an actual ‘cost recovery’ of just 6.7 per cent of the ET system’s total cost of £76.364 million, well below the Ministry’s original target of 33 per cent.

The proportion of fee income foregone in fee remission (13.2 per cent) is also strikingly low, given that, as late as September 2013, the Ministry was predicting that 31 per cent of all ET claimants would qualify for full (25 per cent) or partial (six per cent) fee remission.

Furthermore, we already know, from one of the parliamentary questions by Andy Slaughter that the Minister did deign to answer in May, that the Ministry spent £4.4 million on new IT systems to “support the processing of fee receipts and remission applications across the ET system”. Take that away from the net fee income (gross income – remission) of £4.469 million, and Chris Grayling was left with just £69,000 to cover the staff and other operational costs associated with processing fees and remission applications over the eight months up to 31 March 2014.

In short, it seems highly likely that the Ministry made a net loss on ET fees in 2013-14. Clearly, things can only get better from now on, as most of that capital expenditure of £4.4 million will not be repeated in 2014-15 and beyond. And, of course, the above figures take no account of the operational cost savings to the Ministry associated with tumbleweed blowing through near-empty ET hearing rooms – the real policy intention. As recent speeches by BIS minister Matt Hancock and others have indicated, the Conservative side of the Coalition Government, at least, appears to be very pleased with the overall impact of the ET fees regime, including the 80 per cent drop in claims.

So I don’t expect Chris Grayling to be the least bit bothered about the somewhat less than impressive financial figures noted above. To my mind, their primary significance lies in the implications for any alternative fee regime that might be brought in by any alternative government elected in May 2015. Assuming the number of claims remains at much the same (low) level as now, a net fee income over eight months of £4.469 million implies an annual net income of some £6.7 million. Unless that £6.7 million can be found from savings made elsewhere in the Ministry’s budget, any alternative fees regime is likely to have to generate at least most of it.

Then again, the Lord Chancellor may be humiliated by UNISON in the Court of Appeal later this year, and this blog post will not even rate a footnote in history. I’ll settle for that.