The criminal bar has accused the government of breaching the Equality Act 2010 by proposing to roll out extended operating hours in Crown courts without ‘proper assessment’.

James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said the consultation initiated by HM Courts & Tribunals – which asks for opinions on whether Covid operating hours should be extended to more courts next year – leaves ‘insufficient time for proper representations to be made’. Respondents only have until next week to contribute.

He claimed that HMCTS has ‘failed to conduct a proper assessment in accordance with their legal requirements under the Equality Act 2010'.

In his weekly message to members, Mulholland said if HMCTS decides to introduce the controversial model in more Crown courts, the CBA ‘will take action’. The Gazette understands that strike action and walkouts are being considered.

‘Extended operating hours [present] yet another existential threat to the criminal bar. Once the most financially vulnerable are forced to leave the profession, there will be insufficient numbers to handle the existing case load let alone the expected increase in case volumes. Government needs to remember the incredibly negative impact of such initiatives upon the profession,’ he said.

'Outside court, barristers are compelled to spend many hours preparing...cases and others at rates which are often rarely above the minimum wage. For many years, court hours have accommodated these basic requirements. Placing additional pressures upon them by insisting that, at short notice, they have to conduct a trial in circumstances which involve setting off for work in the middle of the night or returning home after family have gone to bed further detracts from the viability of this profession for all of us.'

HMCTS has been piloting Covid-19 operating hours in seven Crown court centres as part of a coronavirus recovery plan.