The criminal bar has instructed heavyweight law firm Mishcon de Reya to help it fight controversial proposals to extend Covid-19 operating hours to more courts.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service is considering rolling out the model from January. A rapid consultation on the proposals closed yesterday.

The Criminal Bar Association accused HMCTS of breaching the Equality Act 2010 and warned that it ‘will take action’. Yesterday, the association revealed that it has instructed Mischon de Reya in its fight. The firm has asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to assess the extent to which HMCTS has complied with its public sector equality duties.

The letter to the commission states that the CBA is concerned that HMCTS is using the pandemic ‘as an excuse to drive through, without meaningful consultation, reforms to court operating hours that have previously been shown to be unworkable and discriminatory’.

Mishcon de Reya has also written to HMCTS acting chief executive Kevin Sadler.

The letter to Sadler says: ‘On behalf of our client, we have urged the commission to use its statutory powers to conduct an assessment into HMCTS’s compliance with its public sector equality duties.

‘Given the concerns highlighted, both in our client’s response to the consultation and in the enclosed referral to the commission, it would be premature and potentially unlawful for HMCTS to proceed with the scheme in the manner proposed. Please therefore confirm by return that the consultation will be suspended and no further steps will be taken to implement the scheme until HMCTS has undertaken the steps identified in the enclosed correspondence.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘We have been very clear that no one would be expected to work longer as a result of these proposed temporary changes. We are carefully considering the responses to the consultation and no final decisions have been made.’

HMCTS says the Covid-19 operating hours pilots are unrelated to previous pilots that tested flexible operating hours in the civil and family courts. However, the outcome of the CBA’s dispute could potentially affect the future of flexible operating hours.