AN INQUIRY will be launched into the impact higher Federal Court fees have had on Australians' access to justice over the past three years.
Former attorney-general Nicola Roxon most recently increased Federal Court fees in January, making a range of legal actions more expensive, including divorce applications and consent orders.
The Senate unanimously passed Greens senator Penny Wright's motion for an inquiry on Wednesday.
Ms Wright said she hoped it would uncover whether higher court fees were exacerbating barriers to justice, with growing pressures on courts and legal aid in crisis in a number of states, including Victoria.
"Increasingly, ordinary Australians are being priced out of the court system because they cannot afford legal representation and court fees,'' she said.
The inquiry will investigate whether the fee rises are ''reasonable'', how changes reflect different litigants' ability to pay and how they have affected low-income people, small business operators and legal assistance services. While a fee waiver was available for the most disadvantaged, many could not afford to apply for a divorce, which now costs $265 for people on low incomes, compared with $60 last year, Ms Wright said.
The legal and constitutional affairs references committee is due to report its findings to Parliament by June 6.
The inquiry will also examine how revenue raised from higher fees has been spent.
It is believed this year's fee changes have added $38 million to courts, including maintaining services in regional areas.
Ms Wright said only one-third of court fees were spent on the courts, with the rest going to consolidated revenue.
''We'd like to see that revenue going to legal assistance services such as community legal centres, Legal Aid, which is in crisis in some states, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services,'' she said.
Victoria Legal Aid expects to record a more than $3.1 million deficit this financial year due to ''unprecedented demand'' for its services. Commonwealth Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the government supported the inquiry because it wanted to explain why changes to fees would improve court services.
He called on the committee's members to consider the impact lawyers' costs and expenses had on litigants, ''of which court fees pose a very small component''.