There has been significant press coverage about the MOJ’s plans to extend the court opening times in recent months and the concerns that these proposals raise.
The Bar Council has spoken openly about how extended court hours will affect those with childcare issues and their concerns that with childcare often falling on women there will be an adverse impact on diversity.
These proposals are also likely to hit those at the junior end of the spectrum. The JLD is concerned that firms will align their working hours with those of the court, meaning that firms may be open to the public from 8.00am – 8.30pm. As ever, administrative duties generally fall on the junior lawyers and as such the JLD is concerned that extended court hours will result in junior lawyers being pressured to work longer hours for little, if no, remuneration or days in lieu.
In addition to this, in the civil courts the proposals indicate that court work involving litigants in person, applications and bulk work will be done out of the usual court hours, those hours being 8.00-10.30am and after 4pm. This work is likely to fall on junior lawyers. Similarly, in the criminal courts there are proposals that magistrates bail work will be heard from 2.00-6.00pm in the crown court. The hours of the magistrates court will also be extended, with the first hearing at 9.30am and the court closing at 8.30pm. Junior lawyers specialising in criminal defence work will be particularly affected as many are on the duty rota scheme and therefore already represent those accused at the police station out of hours.
As all advocates know, work does not start and finish in line with court hours. This will mean that advocates will need to attend court both before and after hearings (as is current practice) to meet with clients, opponents and to file documents. This raises further concerns about the workload for advocates and junior lawyers, who will likely be drafted in to prepare documents for court.
Many junior lawyers are already exploited and under high levels of stress. The JLD has recently undertaken a resilience and wellbeing survey which found that 93% of junior lawyers suffering from stress in the last month with 26% of those individual being severely/ extremely stressed. In addition, 64.8% of respondents considered that a high workload was the cause of their stress. There is no doubt that these proposals will further increase the workload of junior lawyers and therefore negatively impact their mental health.
Aside from the concerns raised above, the JLD is also concerned about the impact longer working hours will have on lawyers with disabilities and the security of advocates, court staff and clients who, in the winter months, will be arriving at court and leaving court in darkness.
The head of justice at the Law Society, Richard Miller, has already raise concerns that the previous pilot in 2011 (in wake of the 2011 riots) did not provide sufficient evidence that extended court hours were beneficial. The JLD echoes the concerns of the Law Society and the Bar Council that these proposals need to be evaluated, including an impact assessment, before any decisions are made for extended court opening hours to be rolled out across the board.
Amy Clowrey is an executive committee member, Junior Lawyers Division