The profession has raised concerns over government plans to test flexible operating hours in courts and tribunals, under which some courts will stay open as late as 8.30pm.
The Law Society said the pilot scheme must maintain a clear focus on impact while the Bar Council warned that parent barristers could be placed at a disadvantage.
The pilots are expected to begin in May, in six courts over six months. Crown courts will be open until 6pm, civil courts until 7pm and magistrates' courts until 8.30pm.
A spokesperson for HM Courts and Tribunals Service 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 six pilot courts are:
- Newcastle and Blackfriars Crown court
- Sheffield and Highbury Corner magistrates’ court
- Brentford County Court and Manchester Civil Justice Centre
The Ministry of Justice previously introduced flexible court sittings in the wake of the 2011 London riots. Under that scheme, 42 magistrates’ courts had extended weekday as well as weekend sittings. Around 6,000 cases were heard during the pilot.
However Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, said that that the previous experiment did not find sufficient benefits to give the green light to changes.
'An effective pilot would have to maintain a clear focus on impact – whether on members of the public using the court service or professionals providing advice and representation. This includes advising people making or defending civil claims, those involved in criminal proceedings or family court services,' he said.
He added: 'We welcome the assurance this pilot will be subject to a robust evaluation before any decision is taken to roll out the scheme. We look forward to getting more detail from HMCTS – both about the pilot and about how they will evaluate it.'
Chairman of the bar Andrew Langdon QC said that working to the extended hours would be 'almost impossible' for parents with childcare responsibilities. The biggest impact will be on women, he said. ‘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.’