The Law Society has warned the senior judge tasked with modernising the courts service that solicitors’ firms could be forced to close if they have to compensate fee-earners made to work overtime under the out-of-hours court pilot.
In a letter to Lord Justice Fulford, Law Society president Joe Egan says recent assurances the judge had given over the scheme do not mitigate the impact on solicitors and their clients.
Fulford had attempted to address concerns in a letter sent to judges, the Law Society and the Bar Council earlier this month. The letter aimed to ‘demystify’ the proposals and address ‘ill-informed comments’.
In response, Egan says he is grateful for Fulford’s assurance that solicitors will not be obligated to attend both the early morning and late-evening court sittings. But he adds that there is likely to be a considerable financial impact on ‘hard-pressed solicitors’ firms’.
‘Fee-earners will still have to undertake other work outside any hearings in the pilot courts, such as duty attendances at the police station and work on other clients’ files,’ he points out.
‘The cost of paying overtime to the fee-earners who will be working these additional hours will need to be covered by the firms themselves, given that the Legal Aid Agency has made it clear that there will be no additional payments for solicitors working in the pilot courts. Legal aid firms are currently operating on very slim or zero profit margins. We are concerned that anything which worsens the position still further could lead to more firms exiting the market either by choice or through insolvency.’
Egan added that there would also be significant equalities impacts on some firms. He cited feedback from a firm that operates at Newcastle Crown Court [one of the courts in the pilot scheme] which said its head of department would be discriminated against because she is the mother of a toddler and would be unable to attend court for extended hours.
He asked for confirmation that the exemption of not having to work both early and evening shifts ‘will also apply to those who due to caring or other responsibilities, simply cannot work outside normal office hours at all.’
However, in an equalities statement published last week, HM Courts & Tribunals Service said it did not believe the proposals directly or indirectly discriminated against anyone, including those with parenting responsibility.
The statement said there had been ‘some concerns’ over the impact on parents but added that flexible hours may ‘support a better work/life balance for those with caring responsibilities, particularly if combined with better listing practices’.
‘Although caring responsibilities are not technically a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act, we intend to make sure that they are attended to seriously and addressed as part of the FOH evaluation,’ the statement said.
The government said the statement would be regularly reviewed and updated.