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HMCTS plans to extend court hours a blow for women barristers

Plans jar with government’s commitment to improving judicial diversity

27 March 2017

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Parent barristers will be disadvantaged by new proposals for courts to start earlier and finish later, the Bar Council has warned, adding that the plans do not take account of rules that self-employed barristers must follow when organising their work.

A new pilot scheme from HM Courts & Tribunals Service will introduce extra sittings at civil, crown, and magistrates’ courts to increase the number of cases seen each day.

The plans will see the crown court sit until 18:00, civil courts until 19:00, and magistrates until 20:30.

The chairman of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC, said the biggest impact of these changes will fall on women barristers.

‘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.

‘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.

‘The profession and the judiciary must reflect the communities they serve. We need measures that will help women stay in the profession, rather than make it even more difficult to be a mother and a barrister at the same time.’

HMCTS says increasing the number of court sittings will not automatically require barristers to spend more time in court.

However, the Bar Council points out that there is no mechanism in the plans to prevent barristers being listed in both or all three sessions on the same day, which could potentially see them finish as late as 20:30.

Under the cab-rank rule, barristers must accept any appropriate instructions and cannot withdraw from a case on grounds it clashes with childcare arrangements.

The Bar Council has urged HMCTS to ensure that the impact on parents, and women in particular, is built into the evaluation criteria used to test the success of the pilots.

A HMCTS spokesperson said flexible operating hours are just one aspect of the government's plans to transform the  justice system, which include increased use of virtual hearings.

'We are investing over £1bn to reform our courts to deliver swifter justice, that is modern, more accessible and better meets the needs of all court users,' they said.

'We are exploring flexible operating hours in six pilot courts to test how we can improve access to justice for everyone by making the service more convenient for working people.

'These pilots will help us understand how flexible hours affect all court users and will be fully evaluated before any decision is taken on rollout.'

The pilots are expected to begin in May, in six courts, and over a period of six months.

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