Female lawyers have highlighted the devastating impact that extending court operating hours will have on their health, work-life balance and careers.
Nearly 500 solicitors and barristers responded to the Women in Criminal Law’s survey on the impact of extended operating hours, which are being introduced by HM Courts & Tribunals Service to ease pressure on the justice system caused by Covid-19.
Of the 311 respondents who indicated their views on extended operating hours (EOH), 88% said they were against it; 3.9% were in favour. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents were women.
The biggest reasons for opposing extended operating hours were the impact on childcare and caring arrangements, and the impact on work-life balance.
One respondent said: ‘I will have to work seven days a week even more often just to keep up with workload and duty solicitor requirements. There are hardly any extra hours in the day to prepare the work we already have, let alone the extra hours.’
Another said: ‘As solicitors at the moment, we are running around trying to deal with things under a lot of pressure. The police station interviews are running through the night and we are not being given time to breathe.’
Only 12 respondents said they were in favour of extended operating hours – five said they would be able to resume earning; three said the hours suited them better.
Dozens of respondents said they had to attend magistrates’ court at the weekend in circumstances where they would not have had to do so prior to lockdown. Many reported that they had to remain at court past 6pm and arrange childcare at the last minute.
Last week HMCTS revealed that it will be introducing weekday evening courts and extending Saturday courts. HMCTS said legal professionals will be able to request a listed hearing date to be moved if there are practical issues such as caring responsibilities.
However, the Women in Criminal Law report says: ‘It is already becoming clear from discussions with our members that many courts are unwilling to take the availability of advocates into consideration. Additionally, faced with the option of a longer wait for their cases to be heard in “normal hours” courts, defendants will understandably want their cases to be heard in the EOH courts, meaning that defendants and instructing solicitors will be incentivised to select an advocate who can accommodate hearings in those courts.'
Criminal practitioners already work extended hours, the report added. ‘Outside of court, they are preparing for cases the following day, holding conferences with clients, speaking to counsel or instructing solicitors and dealing with the administration that accompanies a significant caseload. Our solicitor members are attending the police station at all hours of the day and night. Put simply, the vast majority of criminal practitioners have no more hours left to give.’
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*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.