06:17, May 31 89 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-31 06:17:02

 

Outcry over proposals for late night and early morning court sittings

Plans to launch a pilot programme of flexible early morning and evening courts from next month are encountering growing opposition from lawyers.

The Ministry of Justice proposals, put on hold during the general election, are expected to start at six court centres in England in June despite protests by the Law Society, Bar Council and an online petition. The proposals would involve extended working hours, with some court sessions starting as early as 8am and other sittings continuing until 8.30pm for a six-month test period.

Robert Bourns, the president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, has warned that it will place extra pressure on poorly paid legal aid lawyers.

“Solicitors representing people accused of wrongdoing already attend police stations at any time during the day or night under the duty rota scheme,” Bourns said. “Fees for criminal legal aid work have not increased for more than 20 years – indeed they have been cut – and criminal legal aid practices already operate at little or no profit. Under this new government plan solicitors would be expected to attend court during unsocial hours for no uplift in pay.”

The initiative, announced long before the election, is aimed, according to HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), at improving access to justice “by making the service more convenient and [using] courtrooms as effectively as possible”.

The experience of all court users – lawyers, victims, witnesses, appellants, defendants, jurors, the judiciary and court staff – will be assessed, HMCTS has pledged. Operating hearings before or after work, it is claimed, could be less disruptive for some people and make more efficient use of courtroom facilities.

Failed previous attempts by the MoJ to operate weekend and late-night hearings has heightened scepticism of the scheme. Following the 2011 riots, which led to emergency night sittings, court officials tried to entrench intensive work patterns in regular proceedings. The experiments were eventually abandoned because of the problem of coordinating prisons and other parts of the criminal justice system.

Starting hearings at 8am would, in practice, mean lawyers would need to be at court by 7am to prepare for a trial; similarly, sessions ending at 8.30pm would not enable lawyers to get away before 9pm.

“This means solicitors operating in the proposed pilot areas will be victims of a postcode lottery, incurring additional cost because of the bad luck of being in one of the areas selected for the pilot,” said Bourns.

“It is not acceptable to operate a pilot without paying solicitors properly for the additional cost they will incur as a result. We remain unconvinced that the scope or evaluation of the pilot will be more robust than its predecessors.”

Andrew Langdon QC, the chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers, said: “These arrangements will make it almost impossible for parents with childcare responsibilities to predict if they can make the school run or to know when they will be able to pick children up from the child-minders. The biggest impact will be on women.

“Childcare responsibilities still fall disproportionately to women, many of whom do not return to the profession after having children. It is hard to see how these plans sit with the government’s commitment to improving diversity in the profession and the judiciary.”

Sites earmarked for the trials are Newcastle and Blackfriars crown courts, Sheffield and Highbury Corner magistrates courts along with Brentford county court and Manchester’s combined civil and family court justice centre.

An online petition opposing late-night court sittings started by a barrister, Morwenna Macro, has attracted more than 3,500 signatures.

The MoJ declined to comment on the issue during the election period. Explaining its proposals in March, HMCTS said the pilot programme would “help us to understand whether flexible operating hours can enable an efficient and effective justice system which is considerate of the needs of the people and professionals who use it.”