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The price of justice

Filing fees for individuals will deprive many people of the protection of the courts

Instead of trying to improve the supply of justice, which is a difficult task in current times of budget cutbacks, but one which cannot be ignored, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón has opted instead to restrict demand for it. This is the easiest solution but not the fairest one. The creation of new court filing fees and the increase in existing ones by up to 100 percent in some cases creates a significant economic barrier for many people who, as a result, will be deprived of the basic right to effective court protection.

This could be interpreted as an extension of the government’s policy of privatizing essential aspects of the state. While the exercise of justice is — as should be the case — and will continue to be an activity that is the exclusive responsibility of the state, people’s ability to seek the protection of the courts will be conditioned by their economic capacity. The final aim of this measure is to act as a deterrent against excessive litigiousness, but it does so at the expense of leaving the least fortunate litigants outside the judicial circle.

The government plans to rake in 300 million euros from the new fees. The measure will take a few weeks to come into practice because of the failure of the tax office to make the official form for paying the fees available on time; or because of Ruiz-Gallardón’s haste in pushing the law through.

The new system begins its existence with the unanimous opposition of the legal community, which views it as something the justice minister denies: a seriously discriminatory restriction of a fundamental right, and as such, possibly unconstitutional.

The Constitutional Court has ruled as admissible the payment of fees in determined cases, in accordance with the economic capacity of the litigants, but this proportionality is hardly compatible with their general imposition and with increases of up to 100 percent in the case of those that already exist.

Cases of criminal justice are exempt from fees, probably because the government believes the cost of these can be borne by the public coffer since they deal with matters largely related to the repressive action of the state in defense of the law and in the fight against delinquency. But in civil, administrative and labor justice, there are basic factors in assuring social harmony: family disputes, citizens’ defense against the powerful punitive arm of the state, and labor conflicts. In such cases, fees for lodging a complaint vary between 150 and 350 euros and between 750 and 1,200 euros in the case of appeals.

Regardless of what Ruiz-Gallardón says, the right to effective judicial protection will be seriously limited for people without the means to initiate legal proceedings, or to lodge an appeal in their defense with higher courts.

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