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MoJ ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ with extended court hours pilot

‘It is hard enough to juggle work and home without evening sittings,’ says silk

11 May 2017

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The Ministry of Justice has been accused of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ as barristers voice their discontent at a controversial pilot scheme that will extend court hours.

As part of the government’s justice reform programme, plans were announced in March to introduce extra sittings at civil, crown, and magistrates’ courts to increase the number of cases heard each day.

The proposals would see magistrates’ courts begin sittings at 8:00am and finish around 8:30pm. HM Courts & Tribunal Service had expected to test early and night sittings this month.

However, many are now predicting that the pilot will fail as it relies on the assistance of lawyers who have already been subject to public funding cuts and a flood of recent civil justice reforms.

‘This is a rotten scheme, that won’t work and it won’t work in particular because the defence community want nothing to do with it and do not intend to co-operate with it,’ wrote Garden Court North’s Mark George QC.

‘Since we were told that if the defence lawyers were not prepared to co-operate there would be no pilot scheme that would seem to be the death knell for this idea.’

Exchange Chambers’ Will Waldron QC said: ‘It is pure hypocrisy to run this pilot scheme on the basis of improving access to justice for working people. Excessive court fees and withdrawal of public funding across the board – not court opening hours – are compromising access to justice.

‘The Ministry of Justice is fiddling while Rome burns. The court system is on its knees and gimmicks like this won’t fix it.’

‘This idea really troubles me,’ added chambers colleague Amanda Yip QC. ‘I am concerned that if introduced on a permanent basis it will drive many barristers away from the Bar and will particularly impact on diversity. The reality is that more women than men will be affected.’

Echoing comments from Bar Council chairman Andrew Langdon QC, Yip said the plan will make childcare financially, practically, and emotionally ‘impossible’.

‘Junior barristers will feel they have to work extended court hours if asked to do so, even at the risk of never seeing their children,’ she continued. ‘When my children were younger, balancing a career at the Bar with being a parent was difficult, but manageable. I’d often rush home at the end of the day, put my children to bed, and then carry on working during the evening, preparing the next day’s cases.

‘If barristers are still at court until late evening, work-life balance will become impossible. I honestly feel I would have left the Bar had this idea been implemented when I had a young family. It is hard enough to juggle work and home without evening sittings. I hope there will be a rethink.’

The latest intervention from the Bar adds to a chorus of discontent over late night courts. The Law Society has said that any proposal would require robust evaluation to assess the impact, while the Criminal Law Solicitors Association said the scheme was ‘discriminatory’, the potential benefit ‘unclear’, and the possible rise in cost to the tax payer ‘concerning’.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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COURT SITTING HOURS