It can only be a matter of time before the Ministry of Justice admits that plans to extend weekend court sittings are unworkable, unnecessary and impractical, and ditches them.
The idea to extend Saturday sittings, introduce Sunday sittings and run trials at the weekend, introduced in a white paper in April, was inspired by the criminal justice system’s collective response to last summer’s riots. For a short, crazy period in August 2011 courts sat for days and nights at a time. Defence solicitors, prosecutors, court staff, police, prison officers and probation officers worked around the clock to deal with the huge volumes of people arrested.
So, someone decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of the enormous goodwill shown by all involved (including defence solicitors, generally overlooked in the mutual self-congratulation) and make weekend sittings permanent. The reason given in the white paper was the need to speed up the delivery of justice.
But the plan failed to take into account how the criminal justice system actually works and the cost implications, which, at a time when government departments and agencies are tightening their belts, seems particularly short-sighted.
Opening courts for longer at weekends will cost more - court staff, police, probation and prosecutors will all need to be paid and probably at time-and-a-half.
Prisons, which are already locking people in their cells for longer due to staff cuts, will need extra funds to divert staff away from other duties to be able to receive those remanded in custody over the weekend. And a method of fairly paying defence solicitors needs to be devised, as the current contracts with the Legal Services Commission do not cover extra payments for working at the weekends.
Another point that seems to have been overlooked is the fact that the number of people arrested and charged by the police is falling and, despite the programme of court closures, many of those that remain open do not have enough business to fill the days from Monday to Friday.
Defence solicitors are strongly opposed to the schemes, which are being piloted quietly by the MoJ. Solicitors in Manchester and Liverpool refused to cover the weekend courts and the pilots scheduled in those areas seem to have been postponed.
Despite reports that other pilots have also been put on hold, the MoJ is still holding the line that ‘nothing has changed’ and the pilots are going ahead as planned.
Surely the MoJ must eventually see sense and throw in the towel. The alternative - which some fear - would be for the ministry to roll out the scheme nationally without publishing any data from the pilots or any impact assessment. And that could be extremely costly.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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